What are the marks of a "true Church"? That is a question that has been asked down the centuries.
The answer is in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation and in what are known as Christ's letters to the Churches. these are seven churches in the ancient Roman Province of Asia Minor, an area of modern Turkey. And the letters are all part of the vision of John, the author of the Book of Revelation, while he was in exile on the Aegean Island of Patmos for his faith in Jesus Christ. These letters are messages for every sort of church and Christian person and in every generation. We are now to focus on Revelation 2.8-11 and the letter to the church at Smyrna. And after some words of introduction I have just two main headings, first, THE PROBLEM and secondly, THE SOLUTION.
But let me start with something by way of introduction.
Smyrna (now modern Izmir in Turkey) was and is 35 miles up the coast from Ephesus, whose letter, stressing the need for Christian love, we looked at last week. If Ephesus was Newcastle, in relative terms Smyrna was Durham, if Durham was much bigger. We don't know when the church was founded; but the city was a loyal Roman outpost. So if you were at all politically incorrect, it was dangerous. Indeed, it had been the first city to erect a temple to the Goddess Roma and in AD26 it built a temple to Tiberius, the Roman Emperor. So there was Emperor worship. And Smyrna was an athletic and cultural centre. It claimed to be the birthplace of the poet Homer, with Homer being the nearest to "Shakespeare" in the Greco-Roman world. At any rate, there was Homer's head on Smyrnaean coins. Finally, we need to note that there was a vigorous Jewish community in Smyrna. And as they gave money for civic purposes, they were in good standing with the authorities.
Well, so much by way of introduction.
Now for our first heading, and THE PROBLEM?
It is there in verse 9: "tribulation" –
"I know [says the risen Jesus] your tribulation [or suffering]."
So if last week love was the mark of a true church, this week it is suffering.
However – and this is important - behind all the suffering of the Christians in Smyrna (for this was their main problem) was THE REALITY OF THE DEVIL.
Yes, the Devil is real. The Bible is clear that the sum total of individual misdeeds does not account for the totality of evil in the world. There is a super-plus and that "extra" is not some non-personal force, but a being with personal characteristics. And he was certainly at work in Smyrna and involved in the persecution of the Christians in Smyrna as we shall see.
This persecution would especially have followed the Christians' refusal to sacrifice to Caesar as a god. They would have refused to sprinkle incense on the fire that burned before the Emperor's statue and say, "Caesar is Lord". However, such a refusal would have been seen as treachery. So the Christians would have suffered because they would only be loyal, in that ultimate sense, to Jesus Christ - they would only say, "Jesus is Lord". Do you have that sort of loyalty to Jesus Christ? It is more and more needed. As was said recently at a National Prayer Breakfast in America, "the days of socially acceptable Christianity in the West are surely over." And that is certainly true in the UK.
Oh! You can call yourself a Christian and drift with political correctness on issues such as the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ as the only Saviour, and then drift on issues regarding marriage and sexual morality and the sanctity of human life. And you will have no problems. You will just be treated as someone with an interesting antiquarian hobby like collecting vintage cars. But let your faith affect your daily life at the point where the modern world is going so wrong, and you will suffer in one way or another.
My wife was one of the first paediatricians to experience that for her stand as a medical adviser on the Newcastle Adoption and Fostering panel over lesbian adoption. This, I may say, was on the grounds of it being not in the best interests of the child as well as morally wrong, which in the case of Christian obedience morality will coincide on average with measurably better results in terms of human flourishing. That is because God knows what is best for human beings – he made us.
At Smyrna most of the persecution seemed to come from the Jews who had certain freedoms from the Romans that the Christians did not have. Well, the Church at Smyrna was a 'suffering' church. It experienced "tribulation". Who tonight is experiencing suffering for being a Christian? I expect many are. Well, remember the church at Smyrna and the Apostles' teaching: "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14.22). Suffering and hardship are normal for the Christian – not, of course always, but at intervals.
But what were the Smyrneans' specific issues?
First, there was POVERTY:
v9 "I know your tribulation and your poverty."
We know that many of the early Christians were slaves or came from fairly humble backgrounds. But the poverty that was associated with persecution would have had a different cause in a commercial centre like Smyrna - not just someone's low station in life. Here is John Stott in his commentary on this letter:
"It is more probable that in their resolve to go straight in business, they renounced shady methods and thereby missed some of the easy profits which went to others less scrupulous than themselves." (What Christ thinks of the Church, Monarch, 2003)
That was not and is still not an option for the believer. So there was poverty.
Secondly, there was SLANDER
v9 "I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan."
"Synagogue" is a Greek word for an "assembly". So John seems to be saying: "The (Jews) call themselves the assembly of God when, in fact, they are the assembly of the devil." This is not saying that all Jewish synagogues are Satanic, but that this Jewish synagogue in Smyrna was. For it was viciously opposing the people of Christ and "slandering" or lying about the Christians. And such lying is a real problem for Christians today.
In Muslim countries Christians are falsely accused and punished for blaspheming Mohammed when they are simply confessing Christ. And in sub-Saharan Africa they are being killed by Muslim extremists for being falsely accused of supporting the Western homosexual agenda, when the opposite is the case. While in the West Christians are losing their jobs or being threatened with losing their jobs for that very opposition to the homosexual agenda. But that is when all they are saying is simply that sex is for heterosexual monogamous marriage. Yes, the Devil is a slanderer. Jesus says "he is the Father of lies" (John 8.44).
So the Christians in Smyrna were facing attacks from a "synagogue of Satan". Nor should they have been surprised. For Jesus said, as the final blessing in his famous Sermon on the Mount:
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" (Matt 5.11).
Are all kinds of lies being said against you? Are people getting completely the wrong end of the stick about your Christian views? If so, you are in good company historically. For there was slander as well as poverty in Smyrna.
Thirdly, there was the threat of PRISON.
v10 "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."
Persecution (it is being predicted) will mean that some Christians go to prison. And that, too, is happening today. This month there is a report of Christians in Jaipur in India being imprisoned and tortured for evangelising. And we know Christians in Iran are still being regularly arrested, imprisoned and harassed despite President Hassan Rouhani's promise of "justice" for religious minorities. And we heard on Thursday from the Christian Institute in this building how a man in the country was wrongly held in custody for street preaching. True, later the Police apologized but only after the efforts of the Christian Institute. Sadly nothing changes. But for the Christians in Smyrna prison would mean waiting for a trial that would determine life or death.
For, fourthly, there was the threat of DEATH.
v10b "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life."
I could tell you of recent attacks on churches and Christian deaths in Kenya and of much worse in Pakistan. For example there was that 15th March attack when two Muslim Taliban suicide bombers blew themselves up at two churches in Lahore with 2000 people at the two churches. Both attacks were foiled by Christian security volunteers, who confronted the terrorists. In doing so they lost their own lives. Sadly 17 people died but not hundreds or a 1000 or more. And death for being a Christian was a very real possibility in Smyrna.
We know of one famous martyrdom from Smyrna – it was mentioned last week. It was the martyrdom of Bishop Polycarp. And he certainly would have read this letter. It would have been a great strength to him. He was killed on Saturday 25 February 155AD. The games were on; the city was crowed; suddenly the shout went up: "Away with the atheists [the Christians who did not worship Caesar]; let Polycarp be searched for." On being arrested, the officer in charge made it clear he didn't want to see Polycarp die. He said: "What harm is it to say, 'Caesar is Lord' and to offer sacrifice and to be saved?"
But Polycarp stood firm, for him only Jesus Christ was and is Lord. When they came to the arena the Proconsul in charge gave him a choice. He could either curse Christ and make sacrifice to Caesar or die by wild animals or burning. Here is Polycarp's famous reply:
"Eighty and six years have I served him [Jesus] and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"
So, we are told, wood was brought for the pyre around the stake.
Even the Jews brought wood on the Sabbath, such was their frenzy. And soon Polycarp was dead. It was not easy being a Christian in Smyrna. Do you think the pressures on you are hard? They may be. But Hebrews 12.3 says:
"Consider him [Jesus] who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood."
So poverty, slander, prison and death are real possibilities for the Christian. Thank God opposition to Christians is only minimal as yet in this country. But if things aren't turned round, serious persecution is a real possibility at the hands of one of two polar opposites – (in the near future) from secular extremists, or (in the longer term) form Islamic extremists.
What then, and our second, heading, is THE SOLUTION suggested to the people at Smyrna?
The risen Jesus' answer in this letter is, NOT FEAR BUT FAITH. Look at the beginning and end of verse 10:
v10: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer ... [but] be faithful unto death."
This is an appeal to be faithful, and not to be afraid. Faith and fear are also polar opposites. So Jesus says in Mark 5.36: "Do not fear, only believe." But what are you to believe? What is it that can dispel your fear, when you are suffering or afraid of what suffering will bring? The answer is you are to focus first on the Person, then, secondly, on the Power and kingdom, and thirdly, on the Promises of Christ.
Jesus Christ wants first of all to impress on this struggling and suffering church WHO HE REALLY IS – his person. So he introduces himself as "the first and the last":
v8 "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: 'The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life'."
This is a claim to deity as we heard in our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 44.6:
"Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his redeemer, the Lord of Hosts: 'I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God.'"
So Jesus Christ really is God the Son, the risen and reigning divine Lord. How you need to remember that when you suffer! When John was told not to fear in Revelation 1.17, Christ said:
"Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades."
So, secondly, these Smyrnaeans were to remember that Jesus is the risen Lord and he has defeated death – such is his divine power. They needed to remember that Christ had experienced the worst that life could bring. He died on an awful cross; but by rising from the dead he had conquered the worst and is victorious over death?
Also his power is seen in his being all-knowing. So he knows all about your situation and its problems. That is what the Smyrnaeans needed to remember. The risen Jesus said to them:
v9 "I know your tribulation."
Jesus Christ knows all about each one of us. That is a great comfort. And then is his power is seen in being Lord over all and sovereignly in control of all. Look at verse 10 again:
"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."
While the Devil wants to tempt you and trip you up through suffering, your Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, is able to use suffering as a means of testing for strengthening you. So, mysteriously at Smyrna, divine purposes for good are being worked out at the same time as the Devil is working for destruction. For ultimately Jesus Christ is in control and not the Devil. Think carefully what is being said here. It is not all, but only "some" who are being put into prison.
The number is limited. And so is the duration of the time in prison – it will just be for "ten days", an indefinite but short time. Christ doesn't allow suffering to go on forever. For he is in control. As Romans 8.28 says:
"for those who love God all things work together for good."
The solution, therefore, to the issue of suffering as far as these people at Smyrna is concerned, is not that Jesus Christ immediately removes poverty, or contradicts slander or opens the prison doors or provides instant resurrection from death. Of course, he can do, and sometimes has done, those things. But not in Smyrna. Rather the command here is not to fear but to be faithful – to be "faithful unto death" if necessary - an awesome command. So the Christians are to focus first on the person of Christ – he is the risen and reigning Lord, and secondly on his power in overcoming death, being all knowing and being in control of all.
And then, thirdly, the Christians at Smyrna are to hold on to CHRIST'S PROMISES
v10b "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 conquers shall not be hurt by the second death.
So here you have the promise of heaven – the crown of life (not a merit award but a gift) - and the promise of escape from Hell (the second death).
Yes, you may lose your physical life for Christ, but then there is that great "crown of life". The metaphor of a "crown" is of the crown or garland at the games, the equivalent to getting a medal or silverware in a sporting competition. And never limit your idea of heaven. Think of what is best and it will be better.
I must conclude. Look at the first part of verse 11:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
It is vital that all of us hear what we need to hear from all these letters. For they are matters of life and death.
But in this letter there is a condition to receiving that "crown of life". It is being faithful or trusting in Christ as "the first and the last, who died and came to life" and, as evidence, hearing what the Spirit says and obeying his word.
So can I say that if you are still in doubt about any of this, and are not yet trusting in Christ, who died and came again to life for you, and for your forgiveness and new life, can I encourage you to join Christianity Explored Thursday week or certainly take "Why Jesus?" from the racks at the exits.
And if you are trusting in Christ the good news is, as Paul says, in an echo of this passage, in Romans 8.35,37:
"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."