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Bible, take your Bible and turn to Revelation chapter two in verse eight this morning as we continue on in our series of studies in the seven letters that our Lord sent to seven churches in Asia Minor. We’re going to make a start at looking at the second of these letters this morning. This is the letter to the church at Smyrna. I’ve entitled the Sermon Stand Your Ground. Revelation chapter two in Verse eight. And to the angel of the church in Smyrna Wright, these things says, the first and the last who was dead and came to life. I know your works, your tribulation and poverty, but you are rich and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are of a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of these things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison that you may be tested and you will have tribulation 10 days. Be faithful unto 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 shall not be hurt by the second death.
It concerns me at times that in our presentation of the gospel that you and I may be found guilty of false advertisement. We tend to soft sell the gospel today. We tend to present the Lord Jesus Christ as a [inaudible] to all our problems. And there certainly is a truth that coming to the Lord Jesus Christ is a great thing to be given the peace of God, to enjoy the forgiveness that comes through Christ and what he did on the cross for us. To have the Holy Spirit infuse our life with power through his indwelling presence. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of things that you benefit from when you come to the Lord Jesus Christ, but we’ve got to be careful in presenting the Lord Jesus Christ as the means to you and I fulfilling our lives as if it’s all about what he gives to us, and it has nothing to do with what we surrender to him.
That’s false advertisement because if you read the New Testament, you’re going to see that it is unequivocally communicated that suffering is part of the package of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We told the Lord, Jesus told us in John 15:20 that they persecuted me and they will persecute you. We’re told in Acts 14:22 that it is through much tribulations that we will enter into the kingdom of God. We’re told in Philippians chapter one in verse 29 that it has been granted to us not only to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ but also to suffer for him. When the Lord Jesus Christ bids the man, come. Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it right, he also bids the man come and die. Didn’t Lord Jesus tell us in Luke chapter nine in verse 23 that if a man would come after him, he must come and take up his cross and follow him.
In fact, in Luke 14 verse 27, the Lord Jesus Christ says, “If you do not take that cross up, you cannot be his disciple.” Suffering, loss for the sake of Christ is part of the call to faith and discipleship in the Lord Jesus Christ. And taking up your cross is not the migraine you suffer on a weekly basis. As tough as that is, it’s not about the bumps that you face in life. Taking up your cross specifically means that you and I are willing to lose out for the spread of the gospel. You and I are willing to suffer for the kingdom of God. That’s what it means to take up your cross. It’s to suffer for the gospel sake. It’s that your Christian faith costs you something, you lose friends, you’re mocked, you’re isolated. Those are the things involved in taking up your cross.
Suffering is the hallmark of true Christianity. Now, write that down because living in Orange County, that’s something we tend to forget, but suffering is the hallmark of true Christianity. In walking with Christ, we will need to take to the Calvary Road. There is a clear and compelling call from the crucified savior to everyday martyrdom, you and I must take up our cross. We are to die without dying. We’re to die to self, we’re to give. We’re to move the focus of our lives over towards the Lord Jesus Christ. The center of gravity shifts from us to him. That’s what’s involved in coming to the Lord Jesus Christ. He gives us his life and we give up our life for him. There’s got to be an everyday martyrdom. Paul says, doesn’t he? In first Corinthians 15:31, “I die daily.” There’s a death that doesn’t involve dying.
It’s a death to self. It’s putting God’s kingdom first, but in some cases that call to take up our cross might involve final martyrdom. The history of the church is to be traced in a trail of blood. In fact, I was researching this week and learned that the latest statistics tell us that almost 500 Christians die on a daily basis across the world. That means that as it relates to the church of Jesus Christ every six days there’s a 911. Now do we think about that? That our brothers in different parts of the world are literally taking up their cross because that’s what’s involved in following the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christianity costs, it involves death to self and perhaps even ourselves to die. It cost the son of God his life and it will cost us ours. If I read the New Testament correctly, a Christianity that costs you nothing is worth nothing. Jesus said, “If you don’t tick up your cross, you’re not his disciple.” And so I’m praying that this morning and next Sunday morning as we study this letter to the church at Smyrna, that you and I would remind ourselves that just like John the Baptist, we must not only pledge our hearts to heaven, we must indeed pledge our heads to heaven.
Just a few years removed from the writing of this letter to the church at Smyrna, the bishop of Antioch a man by the name of Ignatius was led to his own death A.D. 117 by the Roman authorities. He was savagely mauled by the beasts in the coliseum on his way there to Rome from Antioch, he wrote a number of letters to various churches to encourage them to stand their ground.
In one of them, he described himself as, “The wheat of God, ground by the teeth of wild animals and I trust that I may be found to be the pure bread of God.” In fact, it is has said that when he faced the lions in the coliseum, he was heard to say as the lion’s mouth bit down on his bones. As they cracked, he shouted, “Now I begin to be a Christian.” That sits rather uneasy in a day when we soft sell the gospel. When from most pulpits a therapeutic gospel as preached where it’s all about what Christ brings to you, what the gospel adds to you, but in suffering you begin to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word.
After all, following Christ involves fellowship with Christ and fellowship with Christ includes sharing in his suffering. Right? Philippians three verse 10, what does Paul say? “That I might know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings?” The word fellowship means to have something in common with or to share. To follow Christ as a fellowship with him and you and I, if we’re to truly fellowship with him will involve sharing in his sufferings. When you and I put ourselves out for the gospel, we experience a deep oneness with the crucified Christ and we can only experience that in suffering. That is so because in suffering for the gospel we are getting to the very heart of the gospel itself, namely the suffering of God for us. You see our suffering for him creates a platform to proclaim his suffering for us. Suffering is the hallmark of true Christianity.
Conscious of those things I want us to step now into the historical context of this second letter, the second of seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor and the bullseye and the focus of this letter is the call by Christ to these suffering saints. To stand their ground to remain faithful to the witness of the gospel even to the point of death. Look at verse nine. I know your works tribulation and poverty. I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not but are the synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of these things which you are about to suffer.
Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison that you may be tested and you will have tribulation 10 days, but be faithful. This is the focus. Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life. This was a church with its head in the chopping block, few friends, little resources, plenty of opposition. They were filling the full court press of a world that lies in the lap of the wicked one. But Christ himself described in chapter one in verse five, as a faithful witness calls these people to be faithful witnesses to the point of death and he urges them to hold their position and fight through to final victory.
This letter is like a letter sent from home to a soldier on the front line. It’s an encouragement to act bravely. It’s an encouragement to fight valiantly to final victory. Now, by way of introduction, I want you to notice something. It’s a throwback to our introduction into this series that as you read this letter, there’s no censorship. Christ has got no beef with the church at Smyrna.
Now we know that’s not the case with some of the other churches. In fact, there’s usually a pattern and most of the letters to these churches where Christ commands them and then he censors them. Although there’s a few exceptions on either end of that equation because if you look at the churches to Sardis and [inaudible] there’s not one word of commendation. But what’s interesting, if you look at the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia, there’s not one word of condemnation. This was a church that received a five star rating from Christ. Unblemished in their testimony for the Lord, pure, powerful preserved in Christ. If we step back a little, ask ourselves a question, [inaudible] why? I think it’s hard not to see a correlation between their suffering and their strength.
The shake down of suffering tends to purify the church and make it strong. Isn’t that what James argues in chapter one of his latter where he talks about when you fall into various trials, let the work that God’s doing through those come to completion in you. My brethren [inaudible] all joy when you fall into various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. Let patience have its perfect work that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Christians who suffer, Christians who allow their faith to be tested and learn lessons and draw upon the grace of God tend to be very mature people, lacking in nothing. They have a strong faith, they have an unequivocal commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. You get the same message, don’t you? In first Peter five in verse 10.
In fact, we’ll back up into verse eight, “Be sober, be vigilant because your adversary, the devil walks about like a roaring lamb seeking who he may of [inaudible] resist him steadfast in the faith. Stand your ground knowing that the same sufferings.” There is our theme again, the Christians of the New Testament era where all was suffering. And they’re not just talking about chills and ills here. This is what they were suffering because of their testimony for Christ. Knowing not the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world, but may the God of all grace who called us to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus after you have suffered a while perfect, establish, and strengthen, and settle you.
The shake down of suffering tends to purify the church. If you think about it, suffering tends… When you’re asked to pay a cost for your commitment to Christ. Suffering tends to thin the ranks of the church of false professors and hypocrites because they’re not willing to pay the price. In fact, when you read back in Matthew 13 of the seed that falls on the stony ground and doesn’t bear fruit, Jesus goes on to explain that and he says, “That’s the kind of person who shows an interest in the things of God who makes a profession of faith but then comes persecution, then comes tribulation, and they fall away. They’re not willing to take up their cross.”
The persecuted church is a pure church. See, persecution helps us to identify the true believer. I had a dear friend in Northern Ireland called Allen Wilson and he had to deal with cerebral palsy. Came to Christ and his family threw him out of the house. Can you believe that? Came home one night, find his clothes in the front garden. Alan had all sorts of physical challenges, all sorts of disabilities in communicating, but he was quite a character. The Lord would use him tremendously when he spoken, he would often come up to the pulpit with his arms flailing and his legs getting thrown out and the first thing would say, he says, “My name is Alan Wilson and I am not a charismatic.”
He’s a funny guy, funny guy. He made a statement once. He made a statement once that I’ve never forgot. He said, “Do you know that persecution does not make martyrs? It reveals martyrs.” That’s the point. When persecution comes, there’s a sifting goes on and the weed in the chaff gets separated. The true and the false gets separated and here we have a church at Smyrna and they’re going through their ringer. They’re in the vice grip of persecution and they are a pure church because you know what? You’re not going to be a hypocrite and a suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ. You’re not willing to pay that price.
In fact, listen to these words by Timothy Chester, an English pastor who writes, “In persecuted churches, martyrdom is written into the call, the conversion. A decision to become a Christian might well mean persecution, ostracization imprisonment to decide for Christ is to decide for death. When the decision for Christ means a decision for martyrdom, everything else is effectively decided.” Do you get his point? I mean if you’re willing to sign up for death in Somalia or Indonesia are way back in the days of the Soviet Union in the eastern block, commies. When you walk the aisle, when you put your hand up, you knew what you were signing up for. Maybe the death squad.
Rape and pillage and poverty and tribulation, the things that are described here, and you know what? You’re not going to sign up for that unless you’re the real deal. And when you’ve signed up for that, serving Christ, making sacrifices and every things, I think every other areas I’ve given right? I remember as a young Christian in Northern Ireland, a missionary from Eastern Europe came to our church and they told us the story of some KGB agents that crashed into a church service. They were carrying [inaudible] AK-47s and they threatened to arrest every professing Christian in the meeting.
And implicit was the threat of death, but they held out an olive brunch. They gave them a get out of jail card. They said, “If you’re willing to renounce Jesus Christ here and now, you can leave with impunity, just curse the savior, say that you will no longer follow Christ. You will no longer submit to the authority of his word but to the authority of the state.” Not one move. And in a surprising turn of events, the men then suddenly surprisingly put their guns down and fell on the necks of the Christians and the leaders in that church weeping and said, we have become Christians and we’re looking for a church and we need to know you are the real deal.
Persecution purifies the church and the good life in America is bad for us if we’re not careful. And we present a gospel that reflects our culture and doesn’t reflect the call of authentic, primitive, New Testament Christianity. While you come to the cross and you get forgiven and you get justification at that moment and you become accepted before God in Christ and all his merits and all his righteousness is given to you and you are sealed with the spirit of God. What a deal. But you know what? Before you leave his cross, you better pick up your cross and take to the calvary road because this world is no friend to those who live a radical commitment to Jesus Christ. Suffering is the badge.
Let’s look at a couple of things about this city and about this church by way of further introduction. What was Smyrna like? Let’s try and imagine what it was like for these brothers and sisters to whom Christ is writing to be faithful unto death. Why would he even have to write that? Because Smyrna was a dangerous place to be a saint. The city geographically 35 miles north of Ephesus. It was a strategic commercial port on the western coast of Asia. It opened up the way into the Hermas Valley which was very good for business. Culturally it was a city renowned for its growing population, paved streets, beautiful buildings and learning.
In fact, Homer was born there. In fact, it was in a bit of a contest with Ephesus for the title of the beautifulest… That’s not a right word I don’t think, but… The most beautiful city in all of Asia. In fact, they had minted coins with this inscription on them, “First in beauty and size in Asia.” This was a city very proud of its culture. It’s buildings. It’s in fact it had a beautiful skyline. If you were driving into this city, there was what was known as the Crown Of Pegus and many believe Jesus picks up on this with the idea of the crown of life, but we’ll get to that next week. But perched up on Mt. Pegus were all these beautiful buildings, libraries, courts, government buildings.
Smyrna was a beautiful place, a desirable destination, a great place to live. Historically, what was interesting about this city was it had come back to life from the dead. It had risen like the feeble phoenix from within its own ashes. The city had been destroyed by the Lydians in 627 BC. Three centuries went past and it was little more than a village, but then it reestablished itself in the middle of the fourth century before Christ, after Alexander the Great captured Sardis in Asia and rapidly became one of the chief cities of Asia. In fact, little tidbit here, it’s the only city that still exists today of these seven cities. You’ll find it in Turkey. It’s a city called Ishmar and it’s got 500,000 of a population. Now religiously it was a city marked by polytheism, a city marked by emperor worship. They were given wholesale over to the worship of the emperor Domishion.
In fact, Smyrna won this title and this privilege from the Roman senate in AD 23, they beat 11 other cities to be the first city outside of Rome to dedicate a temple to a Caesar. The first temple they built was to honor Tiberius who we find mentioned in the gospels, right? Now we’re in the age of Domishian, AD 81 to AD 96 and emperor worship has become compulsory. In fact, it had been elevated to a place that the Roman citizen was to do it under threat of death.
And so once a year, every citizen of those places that had come under Roman rule was to burn incense on an altar to the Godhead of Caesar. They would make this statement as they put the incense into the altar. Caesar is Lord, you think the Christians had a problem with that? You can bet your bottom dollar they had a problem with that. Because they had been taught what in fact, in the very call to Jesus Christ, there is implicit submission to his lordship. Caesar wasn’t Lord, Christ was Lord and most Christians refused to do this and that seems to be possibly what’s being talked about here when we talked about the things they will suffer, it might involve imprisonment, certainly may lead some of them to have to be faithful unto death.
I want you to notice something about that whole scenario. If you get into the background, they could have continued to worship Jesus. They weren’t told not to worship Jesus. They were told but to worship Caesar and then worship Jesus. The issue in the Roman Empire for the early Christian was they could worship Jesus but not exclusively. But that posed a problem, right? Because according to the New Testament, there’s no other way to worship Jesus, but exclusively.
Colossians with Dave next week are hear about it with Kevin. You can’t worship Christ and you can’t follow Christ, but exclusively. To add anything to the Lord Jesus is to subtract from him. Jesus is Lord and therefore he must have the preeminence in all things. Oh, the Christians were taught to honor the king. They would’ve gladly honored and paid due respect to Caesar, but no, no, it’s a step too far to have us call him Lord. And to offer worship to him.
And Christ is no suffix or appendix in any kind of biblical theology or a life that’s marked with commitment to him. Tony Snow in the Dallas Morning News December 2000 wrote this, “Jesus Christ is the only create religious figure ever to claim that he was not just sent by God inspired by God or used as God’s stenograph, but was in fact God, so was he.” This is the key question. It wouldn’t do to venerate him as a saintly guy with a pageant for performing miracles as God in which cases gospel teaches us profound, difficult and comforting things about reality or dismiss him as a lunatic who deserved crucifixion.
Christianity is the easiest of all religions to dismiss because it offers no middle ground. Either Jesus was God or Jesus was a charlatan. It’s a great statement. Christianity’s one of the easiest religions to dismiss. If you buy into it, you buy into all of it. There’s no middle ground. Christ is either Lord or a charlatan. In fact, Jesus said, didn’t he? In Luke chapter 11 verse 23, “You’re either for me or against me. There’s nothing in between. You don’t put me alongside someone else. You don’t add your commitment to me to other commitments.” I like the story of the pastor who was asked of his 100 congregation, “Were they active?” To which he replied to the surprise of the questioner, “Yes, all 100 are active. 50 are actively working against me, and 50 are actively working for me.”
Jesus said, “You know what? You’re either for me or you’re against me.” And this is where the rubber hits the road. I’m going on a little tangent, but this is where the rubber hits the road for us today in North America. Increasingly ours is a society that will tolerate your Christian faith. Oh, they will tolerate it so long as you keep it private, so long as you don’t go out onto the street, into the public square or around your neighborhood and tell people that God commands every man everywhere to repent, they’ll tolerate it, okay. Until you present it as some kind of exclusive commitment. As if Jesus Christ was the only option.
In fact, to present the Lord Jesus Christ. That way in evangelism according to our society is spiritual racism. As if our savior’s better than anybody else’s saviors. If the Christian faith is better than Hinduism or Buddhism or whatever. What this society will censor and will condemn is the intrusion of your faith into the public square. Will you try to apply the lordship of Christ and the authority of the Bible to matter of ethics and origins and gender, what our culture will not tolerate is exclusive claims to truth binding upon all man and all cultures. But the Christian knows that Jesus is Lord.
And that Jesus Christ owns every inch of this planet. And Jesus Christ deserves the love of every soul on the earth. And if you believe that and you’re committed to living that and preaching that, then you better put your helmet on and start reading the letter to the church at Smyrna. In fact, let me just illustrate this and they’ll try and make one more point and be done.
A few years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention announced that they were going to launch a nationwide campaign and even beyond the borders of this country to share the gospel with Hindus and Muslims, but they were condemned by the then President Mr. Clinton. In fact, the White House press Secretary Joe Lockhart placed Baptists in the same category as groups that quote, “Perpetuate ancient religious hatred.” Do you preach Christ in the exclusivity of his person and nature and you be better be ready to receive this kind of charge. You’re a spiritual racist. You’re the equivalent in North America to the Taliban in Afghanistan because you think you’ve gone a corner on the truth that Jesus is the only way and what you’re doing is you’re stoking up religious hatred and you’re perpetuating old rivals. Craig and Janet, partial rightly observed, quote, “It is no overstatement to say that the Clinton’s administration’s statements against the Southern Baptist view of the Great Commission represents one of the most outrageous White House attacks against evangelicals in our time.”
It’s becoming unacceptable in a land of many Gods to preach Jesus as the only way and the only truth and the only means to life. This whole idea of absolute truth according to our relativistic and pluralistic culture leads to hatred and oppression. See, underpinning this is a redefinition of tolerance. We should be tolerant. Hindus and Buddhist and Jews and Muslims should be able to live in our society free from the fear of threat or censorship. That’s true toleration as with Christianity. But we have redefined toleration to mean that all religions are equally true. Now, that’s not what toleration is. In the marketplace of thought, Christians and Muslims and Hindus can debate the authority of their religions, or the supremacy or exclusivicity of their God.
But now in our culture, now tolerance means that you right out the gate, accept that everybody is equally true, which is completely illogical and silly as an idea. But that’s where we’re at, and if you begin to pedal some kind of idea that you have got the corner on truth, you’ll be shunned and I think increasingly shunned. In fact, several months after the terrorist attack of September 11th 2001, former president Bill Clinton addressed the students at Georgetown University and he partly blamed the attacks on America’s arrogant self-righteousness.
He said, “If both sides could realize that there is no such thing as absolute truth.” This is to quote him, “Nobody’s got the truth. You are at a university which basically believes that no one ever has the whole truth, ever. We are incapable of ever having the whole truth.” Interest thing is if you remember back to his era, as with all presidents, they go walking in out of churches with Bibles under their arms, mocking the very thing they carry. Because if Bill Clinton ever read the Gospel of John, we’re told that in the beginning the word was with God. That word made everything and that word then was made flesh and dwelt among us God invading time. And Jesus Christ was the repository of all of God’s wisdom and truth.
He was the embodiment of what is real and true. And he said himself, “I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life and no man comes to the Father, but by me. And when you come to my cross and receive my forgiveness in, I’m going to urge you and I will strengthen you to do this for you to take up your cross and turn into the prevailing wind of a culture that will mock you. And in some instances even take your life because as they persecuted me, they will persecute you. But through these many tribulations, persevere and enter into the kingdom of God.”
That’s the city and the church. Well, we’re not sure how this church began. Maybe it’s genesis was the day of Pentecost because we know from act chapter two verse nine that many from this region were in Jerusalem and maybe they took the gospel back.
Could be that it’s simply the over spill of Paul’s initial work in Ephesus because in Acts chapter 19 in verse 10, we’re told that the news of what was happening in Ephesus were Paul spent three years echoed throughout Asia Minor. And remember what we said, it’s only 35 miles north, so the likelihood is if it wasn’t some coming directly back from Pentecost, it certainly was those who had heard about the gospel, maybe had traveled up to Ephesus, had got saved, and they went back to their own hometown and began to plant the church for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m going to have to stop here this morning and we’ll really look at the letter next week. But I think all that we’ve heard is challenging. All that we’ve heard is relevant. This is certainly not a call to go out and start trouble. This is certainly not an invitation to some kind of spiritual masochism.
Where the badge of honor is to see how much you can suffer. In fact, there’s story after story in the church history, there almost Christians who went out of their way to get martyred. That’s not what we’re being called to, and we certainly mourn the restriction on our liberties. We mourn the reverse that’s going on in our culture and we certainly want to get behind anybody that wants to stand up for our protections under the Constitution so we can propagate our faith and live under the protection of the government as good citizens, but those who love the Lord Jesus Christ and want to tell others of the good news of him.
But you know what? It seems the culture is changing. It seems maybe like never before. We will have to pay a price for our faith in public schools or in the public square. I think in all of that, we’ve also got to be careful that when we see a fault, we don’t play the victim to the point where we don’t let people know, like those in Acts five, that we rejoice that we were counted worthy to suffer for him. But let’s brace ourselves, let’s resolve this morning that you know what, whatever comes or whatever goes, by God’s grace.
That’s a great cloud of witnesses speaking though our day of what they give up for the faith as our Lord Jesus Christ, the finisher of our faith sits at the right hand of God and pleads for us and calls us to persevere. May we stand our ground. May we preach Christ exclusively. May we live in total loyalty to him.
There’s a great scene at the end of the movie Glory, which records the story of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the only African American regiment in the Civil War exclusively made up of African Americans. And if you watch the movie, which is to a large part historically true, you see what they go through. And the night before a battle where they’re basically going to be used as canon fodder as they will charge a confederate position. They’re all around the campfire and they’re singing some of the old spirituals and they’re reminding themselves that tomorrow life will end for them in an earthly sense. And one of the actors, Morgan Freeman is asked by one of the other actors, Denzel Washington, that he might pray. And as he prays, he says this, I’ve never forgotten this phrase “Lord, may it go back to our friends and family that we went down standing up.”
That’s the call in the gospel. That’s the message of the letter to the Church of Smyrna. Go down, standing up. And I will give you a crown of life and you will not be hurt by the second death. Let’s pray. And then our brother, David’s going to lead us in a thought around the table. Oh God, we come this morning to you and we pray that indeed this word will brace us for whatever we might have to face and face down as Christians. Oh God, we’re mindful that today almost 500 of our brethren and sisters will lose their life for Jesus Christ.
Well, God, may that temper our day as we walk about and enjoy the freedoms and access to food and clothing and shelter and security. Well, God, we pray that you’ll give them grace today to die victoriously. And may we, the church in the West not live indulgent lives. May we stop our belly aching and our crying about such little things, and may we become more radical in our faith and in our commitment to the cross of Jesus Christ. And when things begin to turn adversely for us, as Alan Wilson has challenged us, may persecution reveal us as martyrs. May we be found to be what we always have desired to be, faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.