Encouragement for the Suffering Church (Revelation Sermon 3 of 49)
March 19, 2017 | Andy Davis
Suffering, Persecution, Trials, The Purity and Unity of the Church, Heaven
For almost all of my Christian life, I've been drawn like a moth to a flame to accounts of the persecuted church. Very early in my Christian life, when I was still a student at MIT, I began to read accounts of the trail of blood that has led from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria, and now for 20 centuries to the ends of the earth to advance the Kingdom of Christ. I have been transfixed by accounts of courageous brothers and sisters who faced the rage and might of one Roman emperor after another and who, with unflinching courage, testified to their faith in Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth, crucified and resurrected, who holds the keys of death and the grave. I have delighted in stories of these persecuted brothers and sisters. I have shared many of them from this pulpit.
I remember sharing some years ago the story of the Roman noble woman, Felicitas, who stood on trial for her life before a hostile Roman judge and she said, “While I live I shall defeat you and if you kill me, in my death I shall defeat you even more.” To think that she is my sister in Christ, that I actually get to be part of the same family of God with a woman like that. I have heard of 40 shivering Roman soldiers who, in the year 320, were members of the famed 12th Legion, called the Legion of Thunder, who were stripped naked and left to die in a frozen lake in Sebastia, in the modern day Turkey, because of their profession of faith in Christ. I have heard, as most of us have of Tertullian’s famous statement, “The blood of martyrs is seed for the church.” That is his version of “While we live we shall defeat you and if you kill us, in our death we shall defeat you even more.” I have yearned for these stories, to read about these martyrs and to drink in their faith, and their boldness, and their powerful testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have utter disregard, it seems, for personal safety and unconcern for their own suffering and death.
One story in particular that moved me came from the Romanian church from the era of Communist oppression under Ceaușescu. A Romanian pastor was arrested and dragged into a filthy, dark prison to be tortured until he should renounce his faith in Christ and surrender the names of all the Christians in their city, which he refused to do. Despite the savage beatings they gave him day and night, he would not surrender his brothers and sisters in Christ, and he certainly would not surrender his faith in Christ. When they saw that he would never yield, they sadistically took a different tactic, arresting and bringing his teenage son into the torture chamber with him. When the pastor saw his son, he became terrified in a way that he had not been in all the weeks that they had been beating him. They screamed that they would beat his son before his eyes until he renounce Christ and betrayed his fellow Christians.
When they began their savage beating, the pastor began to waver. He begged them to stop, but like wolves seeing blood on the snow, they became more motivated and more enraged and more vicious. The son was clearly being beaten to his death. The man could bear it no longer and cried out for them to stop, saying he would give them whatever they wanted. Upon hearing this, the son begged him with the little strength he still had left, “I’m ready to die and be with Jesus. Please don't make me the son of a traitor.” This gave the father strength to endure; though the son was beaten to death, the father did not renounce his faith in Christ or surrender his brothers and sisters in Christ.
These stories sparkle like diamonds scattered along the trail of redemptive history. They give us hope, they give us power, they give us conviction and shame for sin. It is hard, I think, for us as healthy Christians to read these and compare it with our own levels of boldness and willingness to suffer, and not to feel a sense of conviction and shame. But in a healthy way, they make us want to be more bold, more faithful, with the short time that we have left. They make us want to suffer for Jesus more than we have ever done before, if He would grant us the privilege. These stories have flowed right down to the present day and they are going on right now in the world around us; we know more and more about the persecuted church.
Knowing that I was going to preach on this small persecuted church of Smyrna, I have been saturating myself in these accounts over the last number of weeks. I have been reading books like Extreme Devotion, which is the sequel to an earlier book called Jesus Freaks which was put out as a very powerful account of martyrs dating back to the beginning of the church. I have read portions of a book called By their Blood, which is account of 20th century martyrs for Christ organized geographically around the world. Last night, at about 11:30, I finished watching Nik Ripken's documentary called “The Insanity of God”.
Nik Ripken is an amazing man. After he and his wife lost their son to disease while on a mission field — it was not a case of persecution but definitely they would have had better medical care if they hadn't gone on the mission field — and he died. Ripken reached a certain crisis of his own faith and began asking the question, “Is it all real?” He asked not from a doctrinal but experiential standpoint — is Christianity real? Is Christ risen from the dead with transforming powers, that are at work now in lives around the world. In his quest, he was drawn to the persecuted church; he felt a right instinct that he would get the answer there and his quest has led him all over the world. It began with an opportunity to go with the Red Cross to Somalia for a month.
The bloody streets of anarchy in that dark country, country, he said, was the closest place to hell he had ever been on earth or probably ever would be. The terror was real as aggressive Muslim warlords unleashed young men, teenage warriors, with vehicles that had machine guns welded to the roofs, and they just scattered terror everywhere they went. Everyone was terrified of these people but especially Christians, whom they specifically targeted for death. Ripken met a group of significant Somalian evangelical church leaders, and they befriended each other. They opened themselves up to him — they prayed together and shared communion. He said that they were partaking in communion as if it were their last supper, which turned out to be the case, since over the next year all of them were dead.
Ripken moved on in his search to Russia, where he began interviewing church leaders who had suffered bitter persecution in prison by the KGB during the era of the Soviet Union. One man had been arrested for pastoring a secret church, which got a little too large — in persecuted countries you're not looking for a mega church. They stay small, because once it gets to a certain level it will attract the attention of the state apparatus, and that is what happened to him. He was arrested, thrown in prison — a very severe prison, the kind reserved for the worst criminal elements in Russia. He was beaten again and again by the guards. But every morning when he woke up, he would stand and sing in his cell — what Ripken called his heart song, a Russian hymn that was his favorite. He would sing the same one every morning, in a loud voice, bringing jeers and derision from these hardened criminals. They would try to throw things at them and yell at him — they were rejecting him — but he would sing this song every morning.
One day, the prison guards found a significant portion of scripture in his cell, and they dragged him out, clearly intending to beat him to his death at a post in the courtyard, where these kinds of things happen all the time. At that point something amazing happened. All of these male prisoners, 1500 of them, stood up in their cells and began singing the song he had been singing for months, in a united voice. The guards let go of this pastor and looked at him wondering and asking, “Who are you? What kind of man are you?” like he had electric shock on him. And he said, “I am a Christian, I am a son of the living God.”
Ripken's travels took him to China, where he was led into the secret assembly of house church leaders — the church in China knows all about vicious persecution at the hands of Communist government leaders. 40% of the leaders of the house churches in China have been imprisoned at least three years. They call it their seminary. That is where they go to learn to be pastors. The church in China, though, has thrived in persecution. The Communists took over in 1948 and expelled western missionaries, and estimates put the size of the Protestant in church in China at somewhere between 400,000 to 700,000 people. In 1983, when China began to open again to the west, Christian leaders in the west wondered if there would be any Christians at all in China. Imagine the stunned surprise of the evangelical world to find out estimates at that point were well over 10 million believers in Christ. Now, the number stands at 10 times that — maybe over a hundred million evangelical believers in China — so the church has flourished in persecution.
Ripken interviewed these house church leaders, and they peppered him with questions about the rest of the world. They honestly wanted to know if the story of Jesus had made it to any other country, or was it it just in China? That was the level of their ignorance of what was going on around the world. They were delighted to find out that there were Christians in other countries, delighted to find out that it extended to places all over the earth, but they asked, are any of them being persecuted as we are? So Ripken started telling the stories that he had already been developing, especially in Somalia, and they sat there for two hours, listening to his stories about Somalia and other places, like they were statues carved from stone; they didn't move, like they were hardly breathing.
The next morning, he was awakened to the sound of people crying out, and he thought the police had found them and were dragging them out, but discovered that they were all praying, with their hands lifted up, praying fervently. He couldn't understand any of the Mandarin that they were speaking, but he heard this one word over and over: “Somalia, Somalia, Somalia.” He found out from his translator that they were so moved by the stories of persecution in Somalia that they had committed to get up one hour earlier than they are already were getting up to pray for the persecuted church in Somalia and around the world for the rest of their lives. They began that morning.
The final story that Ripken zeroed in on was a man that he called the “toughest man I have ever met.” He would not say where this man was from. But they showed a map of central Asia and right in the center was Afghanistan more lit up than the other countries around. He said that this man had fought with other Muslim warriors in his country against an invading army that had come in. It was not hard to figure out that he was talking about the Russians who had invaded. This man was a Mujahideen leader who would led a cadre of fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan in the name of Allah. He stopped counting the number of soldiers he'd killed with his own hands, bloody deaths, at 150, probably many more than that.
In the years that followed that war, he had recurring nightmares of his hands soaked in blood. In his nightmare, he was trying to wash his hands and he could never get the blood off no matter what he did. He tried scrubbing his hands with sand. Nothing would change. And then it got even worse. He started having visions during the day of his hands bloody, all the time. Then one night he had a different dream. And it was a dream of a man radiant in white, radiant in light with nail marks in His hands, in His feet, and wound in His side and scars on His forehead. And He said, “I am Isa,” which is Arabic for Jesus. “I am the Messiah and if you search for me, you will find me. I am the only one who can remove the blood from your hands.” There were no missionaries and no Christians in that country, nowhere to turn, but scraps of the gospel message got to him sufficiently. He did come to Christ, and then he felt strongly led by Christ to start reaching out to the former warriors, who were now fighting a different war.
He went into the mountains and found some of the soldiers that used to fight with him. But when they emptied his backpack and found Bibles in there, they immediately started to beat him and were ready to kill him right there on the spot. What he didn't know was one of them had come to a secret faith in Christ like Nicodemus, and he spoke up for this man and saved his life. He got him out of there on the pretext of saying, “We can trace his contacts, who is getting him the Arabic Bibles. Then we can get them all.” When they considered that, they let him go. This man is now continuing his evangelistic ministry in the mountains of his country.
Ripken’s final and main point in his documentary, “The Insanity of God”, is this: the gospel continues to be authenticated, proven to be true by what people are willing to suffer for Christ.
II. Christ Sets Up the Suffering Church
As we come to Revelation 2:8-11, we come to an account of a suffering church, the church of Smyrna. I think to some degree, Jesus’ letter to that church stands in front of all Christians for all time. Effectively, Jesus is asking, “What am I worth to you? What are you willing to suffer to take my gospel message to people who are not yet converted?” What are we willing to suffer to witness to this resurrecting power?
Jesus said very plainly in John 12:24, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it [brings forth much fruit].” Godly men and women, boys and girls from the beginning of the church have been willing to pay the price to advance the gospel from the era of the Roman persecution right on to our present day. This church in Smyrna was one of the earliest example of a church crushed by Rome — crushed by the devil, crushed by false Jews who claimed to be Jews, but really weren't because they were rejecting Christ and were of the “Synagogue of Satan.”
One of the sweetest fragrances in the ancient world was myrrh. Of course you have heard of it — it was used for burials and was stunningly costly. It was present at both Jesus’ birth — one of the gifts of the Magi — and at His death, when He was wrapped up in those grave clothes.
The word “smyrna” is used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, to refer to the Hebrew word “myrrh.” Myrrh is a resinous substance, a natural gum that bleeds from the myrrh tree when it's sliced, wounded. People harvesting myrrh slice wounds in the branches, and allow the sap to bleed out. After it bleeds out, then it immediately becomes hard and glossy and forms itself in these sticky balls. Then those gummy balls of myrrh are crushed or burned to release the fragrant aroma.
This is an apt picture of a small faithful church in Smyrna: a beautiful living parable of the suffering church throughout history. The church is wounded, it bleeds, it is crushed, it is burned, and it gives off this beautiful fragrance for the glory of God. God uses these sufferings and this incredible fragrance to purify His church and to advance it, to make progress in the internal journey of holiness and the external journey of gospel advance. He does it by suffering. It seems a paradox but the more the church is persecuted in this world the purer and stronger it becomes. It is a lesson that we who are so used to a comfortable relationship with the surrounding world in 21st century America would do well to take to heart.
In this brief letter from Jesus Christ to Smyrna there is not a single word of criticism of the church. There is only a command to be faithful unto death and many encouragements from Christ. None of this was an accident. To some degree Christ is always putting His churches on display. Remember the image from Revelation 1 when Jesus is moving through the seven golden lamp stands: He is in His priestly robe, ministering to these seven churches, which are on lamp stands on a platform. In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.”
Jesus set the church at Smyrna up on a pedestal and put it on display. He wants everyone to see them, not just their surrounding neighbors, and not even just their own generation. The Holy Spirit authored this letter and gave it to us, and we are told “He who has an ear, let him hear” what the Spirit says to the churches. Their testimonies echo through 20 centuries of church history and encourage us today. The suffering of that local church or any local church is never an accident. It does not mean that Christ has lost His power or that He does not love that church anymore. It does not mean that Satan has outwitted Him or outflanked Him on the battlefield. Not at all. Christ was intentionally setting Smyrna up on a pedestal to shine in that region.
What was then the city of Smyrna is now called Izmir. I have a good friend who ministered in Izmir. He will be preaching to you on Easter Sunday when I will be in Cameroon. He has been faithful there in Izmir, and many other are witnessing in that area as well. It is five miles up the coast and due north from Ephesus. It is an ancient city, established perhaps as early as 3000 BC. Smyrna had long been a staunch, loyal ally of Rome. They even won a contest in that area to build a temple to the Emperor Tiberius in the year AD 25, so their loyalty to Caesar was a matter of both civic pride and prosperity. They were very loyal to the cult of Rome there in Smyrna. It was a beautiful place located right on the coast; a great port. We have no idea how the church in Smyrna was planted, no record of it in the book of Acts, but in Acts 19 it says, “The entire region of Asia Minor heard the word of God,” from Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. That is probably where it came from.
Now look at versus 8-9. It says, “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: ‘I know your afflictions and your poverty — yet you are rich!’” The word for “afflictions” here in the original language means “pressure,” literally crushed. Jesus begins his letter here to them by speaking of their afflictions. This is their time of testing, and it will get worse. What are the reasons for these afflictions? First and foremost, their commitment to Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords; second, their refusal to submit to the fanatic cult of Rome and to burn incense to Caesar; third, the presence of this “Synagogue of Satan” which we will talk about in a moment — Jews there were slandering Him and persecuting Him and that is why they were having trouble.
Here we see a major theme which will carry throughout the book of Revelation, not just here in the letters to the seven churches — Christ and Caesar, the battle between Christ and Rome. The battle is joined vigorously at this point. Things had gotten much worse when the Emperor Domitian had declared it to be a capital offense in Asia Minor to refuse to offer the annual sacrifice of incense to the Emperor. This burning of incense to the Emperor was a declaration of open loyalty to Rome. He demanded it of all the citizens of that region in the world. They went to a specific temple to be observed burning a small pinch of incense while saying, “Caesar is Lord,” and then received a certificate. If they did not have that certificate they were liable to punishments, even to the point of death. Obviously, this was the essence of the affliction that Smyrna faced, for their loyalty to King Jesus would not allow them to worship Caesar as a God or say the slogan, “Caesar is Lord.” They said instead, “No Jesus is Lord.” So it came down to a simple choice, Christ or Caesar, and they would not yield.
Caesar threatened physical death, but Jesus (ultimately God) threatens eternal death and hell. We are told in several places in the Gospels, “Do not fear those who kill the body and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who has the power to destroy both soul and body in hell. Yes I tell you fear him.” To burn the incense, all that was required was to say, “Caesar is Lord”, but Christians could never do that, they could not violate their faith. They would only say, “Jesus is Lord.” This brought them into great affliction. The surrounding citizens would see this as a disgraceful lack of patriotism which, if it went unchecked, could threaten the city's special relationship with Rome.
Along with this, as I've mentioned, is Jewish opposition to the gospel. There was, as Jesus said, here “a synagogue of Satan.” In verse 9, He says, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan.” The Jews as a group had been given an exemption from needing to burn the incense to Caesar. The Jews exploited their privilege and used it against this hated sect of the “Nazarenes,” as they called Christians. They curried favor with the Gentile overlords by luring the Christians into the temptation to deny their faith in Christ, whereupon they would have them in one sense. But if they refused to burn then they would turn them in to the authorities. They would speak about it, hence the word “slander.”
Jewish hostility to the Gospel happened in Jesus’ lifetime. The Gospel of John in particular makes it plain that Jesus dealt with Jewish leaders who rejected his claim to be the Messiah, the Son of God. They would not believe in Him and so He was rejected by His own people. “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” We see it also in Paul’s life and ministry, in the book of Acts — everywhere, it seemed, Paul went, he faced this. He went first to the Jews, to the synagogue, then there would be division. The Jews would start kicking up trouble for Paul and eventually would get him expelled from the city; if not, they were trying to get him killed. Some Jews even took a vow of starving themselves until they could murder Paul — that was the level of commitment they had. This Jewish opposition to the Gospel spread way into the second century AD and even beyond in terms of Smyrna, for when their godly leader Polycarp was burned at the stake, it was the Jews who were the most eager to gather the wood for the burning.
Four Specific Trials:
Jesus mentions four specific trials for the church at Smyrna: poverty, slander, prison and death. First, he mentions poverty. Look at verse 9: “I know your poverty,” He says. Undoubtedly this refers to economic poverty that came on them because they were Christians. Even during Jesus’ lifetime, the Jewish authorities had said that if anyone said that Jesus was the Messiah he would be put out of the synagogue. What that meant was disconnection from society. They probably then could not buy or sell or make a living and so it became immediately difficult to live in that situation. The same mentality, then, must have gone on in the Gentile world. Those who did not play ball or do the pagan thing the way that their other Gentile neighbors did would be ostracized. They would not be able to make a living. Beyond this, the persecution would impoverish them — being arrested and put in prison, they could not make money and became a drain at that point. As it says in Hebrews chapter 10 about some other persecuted Christians,“You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” So that's the nature of their poverty because they were Christians they were poor.
Second, slander: Jesus said, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a Synagogue of Satan.” The word “slander” has to do with a false accusation. The Jews were turning the Christians in, providing their names to the authorities and that is how they knew whom to arrest. They were doing the work of the devil. The word “satan” means, in Hebrew, accuser; the Jews were doing that accusing work. Also, Satan is a liar and the father of lies.
Third, we have prison. He says in verse 10, “I tell you the devil will put some of you in prison to test you and you will suffer affliction for 10 days.” They lost their freedom as a result of these slanders. They were put in Roman prisons, which were horrible places — they were dark, they stank, there was no food, no water, no medical treatment, nothing. It was horrible. There was no habeas corpus — the authorities did not need to give any probable cause for incarcerating them. There was no requirement for a speedy trial, There was no possibility of a bond that would let them out until a trial happened. In many cases they were thrown in jail; in effect the jailers threw away the key and forgot about their prisoners. They may not have executed them but effectively their lives were over.
Finally death: He says in verse 10, “Be faithful even to death and I will give you the crown of life.” Often throughout the history of the early church, death at the hands of legal authorities was common. “The blood of martyrs is seed for the church.” Christians died so that others might spring up from their bloody witness. We will see this later in Revelation 12:11. The Christians — courageous bold Christians — overcame Satan “by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
Probably the most famous story of a martyr in the ancient world was that of Polycarp. Polycarp was the bishop (or overseer or elder) of the church there in Smyrna. Church tradition says that he had been discipled by the Apostle John. By the year 156 AD, he was a very old man. He was arrested. He had fled the city at the begging of his church. They did not want him to be arrested, though he was perfectly willing. But he complied and went out of the city. However, his pursuers tracked him down and found him, and he made no effort to flee at that point. In fact, he invited his captors in for a meal — showed them hospitality, fed them, gave them drink — and asked if he might have some time to pray. They granted it to him and he prayed for two hours. Those were some patient guards. As a matter of fact they were very favorably disposed toward him. The entire time that they drove him to the amphitheater they were pleading with him to recant. They wanted to save his life — he had a great reputation in that community.
He was pulled up in front of the proconsul in the amphitheater, who said, “Respect your years, swear by Caesar, burn the incense, revile Christ and I'll set you free.” Polycarp said very famously, “For 86 years I have served Him and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” It is one of the most famous statements ever made by a martyr. The proconsul said, “I have wild beasts.” Polycarp said, “Bring them. You get to choose how I die, I'm going to die today.” The proconsul replied, “If you disdain the beasts I will burn you with fire.” Polycarp said, “You threaten a fire that burns for a little while then it is extinguished, but God threatens a fire that burns forever. But what are you waiting for?”
So immediately the trial was over, and the proconsul ordered him to be burned. He refused to be fastened to the stake but instead prayed, “Oh 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 an hour of sharing in the cup of Christ among the number of your martyrs.” The fire was lit but a gust of wind blew the flame away from him, greatly increasing his torture, whereupon a sympathetic guard ran him through with a sword and ended his life.
A Timeless Call from Christ to Suffer for Him
This is the kind of witness that Christ was calling on Christians to make there in Smyrna, and indeed, around the world. This is really a timeless call from Christ to suffer for Him. Look at verse 10: “Be faithful, be faithful to me. Keep your promise to me.” “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you crown of life.” Suffering is foundational to our Christian faith. We talk about the internal journey of holiness and the external journey of gospel advance. Neither one happens without suffering. It is impossible to make any progress in holiness and any progress in spreading the gospel without suffering. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls in the ground and dies it remains a single seed. If it dies it brings forth much fruit.”
A Mark of a True Church
This is the mark, therefore, of a true church. The more faithful a church is, the more likely it will be to suffer persecution. In the parable of the seed in the soils, the rocky soil hears the word, receives it with joy — has a happy initial reaction to the gospel — but when trouble or persecution because of the word comes they quickly fall away. A church made up of cowards is no church at all.
Our Temptation to Compromise
Here in America, we are overwhelmingly tempted to compromise. What about us? How is the church in America? How is the church in Durham? How is this church, First Baptist Church in Durham, on this? Christianity is becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. I am sure you have noticed. Our views on the exclusivity of Christ being the only way of salvation seems to be incredibly arrogant to people. Our views on gay marriage and transgenderism are seen ironically to be sick, mentally ill, and hateful. Our views on the inerrancy of scripture is laughable in the light of science’s advances. Our views on sexual purity, the unlawfulness of all sex outside marriage is seen to be prudish, and outmoded, and ridiculous. Our commitment to life contrary to abortion and euthanasia seems to make us hateful to the freedom of women to make choices and the freedom of others to die with dignity. The list goes on and on. We are under constant assault towards sin and compromise. The biggest question is, will we be faithful to share Christ with lost people? All these other issues are small compared to that. Are we willing to speak up to a lost person and say something about Jesus this week? We seem to be ashamed of Christ. In Mark 8:38, Jesus said, “If anyone is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in His Father's glory with the angels?”
III. Christ Comforts the Suffering Church
Christ’s Clear Command to Smyrna
Christ gives comfort to his suffering church. Look what he says in verse 10. He gives them a clear command, “Do not be afraid of what you're 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 is saying, in effect, “Be willing to die for me. Be faithful even if they're killing you.” This is the hardest command, I think, Jesus could ever give. “Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is saying, “I’m asking greatest love of you, that you lay down your life for me if called to do it.” I believe this command is timeless, not just for this church at Smyrna, but for all of us.
He says, “Do not be afraid of what you're about to suffer.” Faith and fear are frequently juxtaposed as opposites in the New Testament. Faith drives out fear. Do not fear and think about this, what you are about to suffer but have not been begun yet. And think about that. A suffering that has not come yet but is coming — that is fearful, is it not? It is the kind of thing we fear. “Sometime this week you will suffer greatly. Don't know when.” How would you go on? But don't be afraid of what you're about to suffer.
Faith Drives Out Fear…the Stronger Our Faith, the Bolder We Become
You know that the devil wants to harm you. Others have already been thrown in prison. The devil is coming after you. Your fears of the unknown rise and take your imagination to high levels. You start to have trouble breathing, and you break out and sweat, and you start being anxious. Do not do that, do not be afraid. Psalm 56:3-4 says, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you, I will trust in you. In God whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?”
The strongest words in the Bible on this are found in Isaiah 8, which tells us to fear God more than we fear anything man can do. Isaiah 8:12-14 says, “Do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, He is the one you are to fear, He is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary for you.” So the more we see the invisible, eternal, majestic enthroned God, the less we will be afraid of people. Ultimately we need to focus on Christ above all. Look what he says about himself at verse 80: “These are the words of him who is the first and the last.” It is a claim to deity.
Focus on Christ Above All:
Christ is the Eternal God
Jesus is saying, “I am the point of history. I am the beginning of history, I'll be the last of history.” It is the very thing God the Father had claimed in Revelation 1:8, when he said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Jesus is claiming deity. He is the first and the last and nothing can stop his purposes from happening. The flow of history will go on and nothing will stop it. And also as the first and the last, he's the same, as it says in Hebrews 13:8, “The same yesterday and today and forever.” Focus on the timeless unchanging Jesus.
Christ is the Death Conqueror
Verse 8 says, “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last who died and came to life again.” He is the death conqueror. “I hold the keys of death and Hades.” I love that. He said, “I died and behold, I'm alive.” Isn't that beautiful? “Behold. Just look at me I'm alive. What are you afraid of?” “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me will live even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Hebrews 2 says, “He died, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” We are set free from fear of death, or should be. So what are we afraid of?
Some years ago I preached an Easter message from Hebrews 2. I gave a series of quotes of saints about death and how we need to fear nothing at all. Spurgeon said this, “For these saints, to die has been so different a thing from what they expected it to be, so lightsome, so joyous; they have been so unloaded of all care, have felt so relieved instead of burden, that they have wondered whether this could be the monster that they had been afraid of all their days. They find it a pin's prick, when they feared it would be a sword thrust; it is the shutting of the eye on earth, and the opening of it in heaven.” Thomas Goodwin, Puritan pastor said, “Ah! Is this dying? This? How have I dreaded as an enemy this smiling friend?” William Preston said, “Blessed be God! Though I shall change my place, I shall not change my company.” Charles Wesley said, “I shall be satisfied with thy likeness… satisfied, satisfied!” He said that over and over — that is a good way to die. Adoniram Judson, who suffered more than we can possibly imagine in the spread of the gospel, was sick with the illness that would take him out of this world. He said, “I am not tired of my work, neither am I tired of the world; yet when Christ calls me home, I shall go with the gladness of a boy bounding away from school.” William Everett simply said, “Glory… Glory… Glory…” for 25 minutes, until he was finally out of this world. Christ has the power to free us from the fear of death.
Christ Knows Our Suffering in Detail
He knows our suffering in detail. He says to the church in Smyrna, “I know.” “I know your afflictions, your poverty. I know the slander of the Jews.” “[I am] close to the broken hearted and I save those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). “I am acutely aware of how many tears you have wept in prison or for those in prison.” Psalm 56:8 says, “You have kept count of my tossing. You put my tears in your bottle. Are they not written in your book?” “I am very aware of what you're going through.
Christ is Sovereign Over Our Sufferings
Not only is Christ aware of our sufferings, he orchestrated them. He is not saying, “Oh, you're suffering. Well, let's make the best of it.” He orchestrates the afflictions of his people to put them on display, and he controls them. 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 … for 10 days.” It is measured, who gets put in prison and how long they will suffer. “Some of you will go in prison, not all of you, and it will be a narrow time, ten days.” Not literally 10, I don't think but just a very short amount of time. 1 Corinthians 10:13 “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
Christ is Purposeful in Our Sufferings
Christ will not allow the devil to do more than God in Christ wills, and He is purposeful in our sufferings. “He [Satan] will put you in prison, it says to test you.” In Luke 22, Jesus says, “Simon Simon, Satan has asked to sift you [all of them] as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And so these trials, 1 Peter 1, “have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes, though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Praise, glory, and honor for yourself, yes (Romans 2), but also praise, glory and honor for Jesus for saving you; and also for other people who are saved when they watch how you suffer.
IV. Christ’s Rewards for the Suffering Church
Temporarily Poor, Yet Eternally Rich
Christ has rewards for the suffering church. He says in verse 9, “I know your afflictions and your poverty — yet you are rich!” Isn't that beautiful? You appear poor, but you are actually rich. Later he will say to the church at Laodicea, “You appear rich. You are actually destitute.” To this suffering church, Jesus is clearly referring to the inestimable treasure waiting for these martyrs when they get to heaven. Heavenly treasure. What is the essence of that treasure? Rewards from God, which I believe is praise from God. Meditate on that — praise from God! He will praise you. He will honor you. He will say, “Well, done you good and faithful servant, you are faithful unto death.” He will praise you.
And he talked about this crown: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” It is an emblem of achievement and of honor. “You will not be hurt at all by the second death, which is hell. You are not going to go to hell; you will be freed from that. You will go to heaven, and I will give you emblems of honor, and you will take those crowns and put them at my feet, and you will give me full credit for all of your honor and glory, but it will be yours to give because I will give it to you. I will give you a crown of life.”
I do not believe all Christians will be equally honored in heaven. Not at all. If I keep on living the kind of life that I am living right now, I will not receive these kinds of honors. Church history is filled with people who have suffered far more than me or most of you. Remember John and James said, “Grant that we may sit at your right and your left in your kingdom.” That is a bold thing to ask: "I want to sit right next to you in your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “You do not know what you're asking. Can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?” We see how it is linked to suffering: the more we suffer, the more honor. The brothers and sisters who suffer the most will be honored the most — but we will all be perfectly happy in heaven. Perfectly happy, but not equally honored. Thus Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Trust in Christ for the Forgiveness of Your Sins
Here are some applications beyond the ones I have already given. The first and greatest has to be to make an appeal directly to any of you who are outside of Christ, non-Christians who are here today. These letters to the seven churches were written from Jesus to Christians, and so as I said last week, and I will continue saying, if you are not a Christian you are listening into somebody else's mail. But it could be yours if you will just repent and trust Christ. God sent his son into the world to live a sinless life and to die an atoning death on the cross that you and me, sinners like us can be forgiven. Remember that man, that had that blood on his hands, he couldn't get it off. Jesus can cleanse us and purify us of all our sins, so trust in Christ.
Understand the Main Message Here: In this World You Will Be Hated
Second, understand the main message here: In this world you will have trouble, but take heart and overcome the world through faith in Christ. The more courageously and boldly we testify to Christ, the more the gospel advances. James Merritt, a pastor in Georgia and president of the southern Baptist convention, said this a number of years ago: “90% of evangelical Christians in America, who are effectively born in the church, raised in the church, married in the church, living in the church, raise their family in the church, get old in the church and die in the church. 90% of them never open their mouths and say anything to a lost person about Jesus.” 90%. The Chinese Christians, when asked in Ripken's documentary about remaining silent in the face of persecution, said they believe that when you are being persecuted and opposed and you remain silent and choose not to say anything about Jesus, you have identified with the persecutors. It is light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. You have associated with the enemies. If you are silent, you need to speak.
Learn About and Pray for the Persecuted Church
Third, learn about and pray for the persecuted church. Remember the Chinese Christians, who added one hour a day praying for the persecuted church in Somalia. It says in Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Study about the persecuted church. Read Extreme Devotion or Jesus Freaks; or get “The Insanity of God,” this DVD and watch it. Learn about Voice of the Martyrs and Persecution Project, and other groups that are putting the persecuted church more in focus to make people more and more aware. Learn about what is going on in the world. The worst persecuting nation on earth is North Korea, a communist country. However, 41 of the 50 worst nations for persecution on earth are dominated by Islam.
Understand the Unity of the Church
Fourth, understand the unity of the church. We are one body. 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” We are not different churches; we are a part of the suffering of persecuted churches. We show by prayer and by concern and by learning that we are a part of it. “When one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” When those brothers and sisters get huge, amazing crowns in heaven and we don't get them for suffering in the same way, we will be so thrilled and happy with them in heaven. Why? Because there is no bad stuff in heaven — no discontent, no pride, no arrogance. We will celebrate the achievement of those brothers and sisters in Christ, but the more we do that now, the better. Let's honor those who are worthy of honor.
Delight in the Glory of a Church Advancing by Blood
Fifth, delight in the glory of a church that advances by the blood of its messengers. In Colossians 1:24, Paul says, “I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” There is nothing lacking in the blood of Christ for atonement, but what is lacking is the application of the atonement to the elect who are as yet unconverted. And who does the persecuting in the world? Unconverted people. That makes sense, doesn't it? Unconverted people are in two categories: unconverted elect and unconverted non-elect. We will never know who the non-elect are in this world. Never. We always have good hopes that the persecuting people might some day come to Christ. So let's delight in the glory of that.
Give Money to the Persecuted Suffering Church
Sixth, let's give money to the persecuted suffering church. You have an opportunity to do that this very week. In your bulletins, there is a story about a famine in East Africa. The United Nations says this is the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War Two. There are certain criteria for labeling starvation in crisis, and what they are seeing is way beyond their markers. Five nations in particular, are starving to death. They are Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Kenya.
The primary of cause of famine in four of the countries is Muslim extremism. The Muslims are trying to take over countries like Somalia and all that, and people cannot work. There is also a drought currently. This is a direct issue of the persecuted church suffering and unable to eat or even live. Baptist Global Relief — BGR — is there. You can give this afternoon to them to relieve our brothers and sisters who are starving to death in East Africa.
Be Ready to Suffer Yourselves
Finally, I urge you to be ready to suffer yourselves. The small persecution is not insignificant, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and falsely say things against you.” That is not a minor thing. Be bold. Share Christ with someone this week. Get outside your comfort zone. Realize the comfort zone is not from Christ but from Satan. Get outside the comfort zone and share Christ.
VI. Closing Prayer
Close with me in prayer. Father, thank you for the things that we've learned about the suffering church. Thank you for the examples, the stories of their courage, their boldness and faith. Thank you, oh, Lord, for the church at Smyrna and the way that they were exhorted by Christ to be faithful unto death. Help us to be willing to be faithful, to deny ourselves daily and take up the cross daily. Help us to fight the good fight of holiness, of private holiness, of purity, so that we can get stronger to fight the external battle of witnessing. Give us strength and courage, Lord. Thank you for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We pray that you'd strengthen those in Somalia and those in North Korea and those in China and other places that are being persecuted for their faith. Give them strength. Help their faith not to fail. And help us, oh Lord, to be more faithful in praying for them in Jesus' name.