Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Persecuted Church of Smyrna

For those of you that have been following this study into the Book of Revelation, we are beginning the study into the Seven Letters to the Churches and what we have discovered is not only were these personal letters from Jesus to the heads or pastors of each of these real churches in Asia Minor, but they also address our own spiritual natures as believers and in the churches today. If you look at each of these letters, they address a spiritual state in which we all fall into. The study has been into which of these churches are you most like. In the last three studies, we addressed the church of Ephesus and today, we begin our study into the church of Smyrna, the second church mentioned in Revelation. The point you should be considering as you enter each of these sessions is how is your spiritual life in comparison to these churches mentioned in Revelation. Which one in 100% honesty can you relate to in your spiritual walk as a believer in Jesus? The results might just be eye opening.

Revelation 2:8-11 ~ "To the angel of the church of 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! I know the slander of those who are say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 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, and you eill suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has a ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death." (NIV). 

Notice that this is the shortest of the seven messages that Jesus gave to these churches. It is also interesting to note that He offered no criticism to them as well. He simply encouraged and commended them in this letter. We already know that the church of Smyrna was an actual church in Asia Minor which today is in Izmir in modern day Turkey and boasts a population of 300,000. At this time Smyrna, along with the church of Ephesus was a center of paganism and false worship. It was a city that had been leveled by wars but was rebuilt by one of the generals Lycemicus, who had served Alexander the Great. He restored it so much that the citizens there proclaimed that it had died but has come to life again. It was considered one of the most beautiful cities in all of Asia Minor. It was built along the Mediterranean Sea and as you continued into the city, it was elevated as it progressed inland and upward almost like a crown of sorts to Mount Pagus. On top of this mountaintop, there were various painted white structures dedicated to their pagan gods. They called it the "crown of life." They believed there wasn't a god that you couldn't find life in. It was also the birthplace of Homer. 

In fact, Smyrna was known for their loyalty to Rome and was known as well for their worship of Caesar. It was almost like a competition in the occupied cities to see who would have the right to build a special temple to Caesar and in this case, Smyrna won! They were known for the worship of the emperor and for declaring that "Caesar is Lord." There were streets lined with golden temples to the gods of Sibyl, the gods Apollo and Zeus.

Yet not all the citizens worshiped Caesar and the believers in Smyrna refused to acknowledge that "Caesar is LORD." and would not say it as well. Instead they said, "Jesus is Lord." This caused a division in that city with its countercultural messages that offended each group. It was definitely a tough place to be if you were a Christian, for if you took a stand for Christ, there was a price to be paid.

When Jesus said in verse 9, "I know your afflictions and your poverty, yet you are rich!" Why were they experiencing poverty in such a prosperous place? It was because of their willingness to stand for Jesus. If you were a Christian business owner and they found out that you were worshiping Jesus instead of Caesar, they would take their business some place else. It was not unlike what happened to the Jews during the rise of Hitler in Germany. It began when people refused to do business with Jewish-owned businesses. Then when the Gestapo came in and wrote Jew on the windows of the business in an effort to keep people away from doing business with them, it further ostracized the Jewish people. They were forced to wear yellow armbands, identifying them as enemies of the state. Before long, however, the business were vandalized and burned down, and then the Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

This was exactly what the atmosphere was like in Smyrna. If people discovered you were a believer, they would say, "We don't want to do business with you and we are reporting you to the authorities." As a result, in the Christian communities, poverty descended in the middle of the cities population.

The believers in the city were also slandered. Jesus reminds us that in verse 9, "I know the slander of those who are say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." The church was not only under the persecution of the Romans who wanted them to worship Caesar, but they were also being harassed by the Jews who were not fellow shipping with God. Jesus called them a "synagogue of Satan."

Lies were being spread about believers. The blasphemy that Jesus spoke about wasn't as much about God as it was about God's people. It may be a small comfort in the heat of the moment, but when someone is forced to make up lies about you because they can't find any inconsistencies in your life, rejoice and realize that is a wonderful thing. In this passage, Jesus commends the church who is being lied about, to "be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." ~ Revelation 2:10.

Jesus wasn't giving them happy news about their future on earth. He wasn't telling them to stay positive, He told them to stay faithful. Why? Because He knew that despite what they were going through it was going to get worse, much much worse. And it did. The believers of Smyrna, as well as many Christian throughout Rome suffered greatly for their faith. Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children were put to death simply because they would not say, "Caesar is Lord." Roman historian Tacitus wrote about what happened to some of them.

"Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were covered with wild beast skins and torn to death by dogs. Some were crucified, others set on fire to illuminate the night when daylight failed...Or tied to stakes in Nero's garden while he drove around in his chariot...gloating over the dying agony of his victims." They were taken to the Colosseum and put on display for entertainment with lions and other animals. Often they were 'quartered' which means their hands and feet were tied to horses and they were pulled apart. 

Imagine how horrible it was to watch this. The emperor Nero began to tyrannize the church of Jesus Christ, but the persecution actually intensified under Diocletian. We know it didn't work out well for Rome either. The citizens of Rome were extremely loyal and patriotic, and if you didn't worship Caesar as Lord, you were considered a traitor, crazy, an outcast, insane or a freak.

Sound familiar in today's world? How do we comfort someone? Some people avoid them, they shut down, go into denial because they don't know what to say or do. Realize this, that if you are a Christian, you will face suffering in your life, at your job, in your family and in your home. Not a hangnail mind you or your computer crashing, it's when a situation occurs and you cry out to God, "God, Why Me?" Suffering is not based on a lack of faith. God does a work in our life, that forever changes us, but God also promises us that He'll never leave us or forsake us.

God engineers those difficulties in our life - our suffering is not what is important to God however, it is what we get out of it that matters to God.

We are like ostriches, saying it's not going to happen to me! When it's scared, it plunges its head into the sand. People often live their lives in fear of what may come. They feel if they live on the defensive, they will be prepared when it does happen. We can be so caught up in the potential fear of what may happen, that they panic, they worry and in a sense, have stuck their head in the sand, and hope it doesn't happen. Does this ever work?

In 2002, an estimated 361,000 Christians have died by persecutors, 81% by Muslim extremists, simply for their faith in Jesus Christ and it is only increasing. You can find these statistics found on Voice of the Martyrs or Open Doors Ministries.  Most of them are being killed and martyred are in the African countries or the Deep South Pacific islands.  30,000 people died under the hands of Joseph Stalin. Some were Jews and most of them were Christians. The church is under a great suffering like never before. Did you notice the the word Smyrna is a derivative of the word myrrh an embalming oil, medicine or perfume which means crushing, or suffering, because you have to crush it to release the oil and thus made it costly and desirable. It played a part in Jesus' life. The wise men brought Him myrrh, when they went to see him in Bethlehem. It is interesting to note that they offered him gold, frankincense and myrrh, speaking to His deity, his suffering and the fact that He would die. In Isaiah 60:6 however, speaking of Jesus' millennial reign, they bring gold and incense but no myrrh, because He will never die again.

So Smyrna is the church of Suffering.  Suffering is a mysterious thing to endure. Suffering does have to take a physical toil on us, it can simply be the fear of what might happen, that keeps from moving forward. They are tormented by the fear of suffering.

What is even worse is that there are so called ministries, that pronounce a curse on anyone going through a difficult time financially or perhaps someone is sick or being ill-treated. That somehow God has abandoned those who are going through a period of suffering. Yet we know that the opposite is true based on the promises found in the Bible, that Jesus NEVER leaves us or forsakes us in the midst of our sufferings. It is at that point when you feel crushed that Jesus promises, My grace is sufficient for you, My strength in you will now be made complete. It is in the life of those suffering, that Jesus presents Himself in very tender ways, to comfort us and to bring us hope and assurance.

What we are going to see in this letter to the church of Smyrna is how Jesus ministers to those in trouble. This is His own personal approach to comforting those who are in trouble and are suffering. These are 4 very powerful verses packed with a message to comfort the persecuted church, and until you are facing that type of trouble, you will never know the true power of His words. Remember one thing, when you live in a hostile environment, you can still be a peaceful Christian or Christian church. Everything Jesus says here applies to a church that is suffering.

Revelation 2:8 ~ "These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again."

1. I am the First and the Last. Why is that important? Because those in the Roman Empire in Symrna believed this, it was the slogan of the Roman Empire. They were the first and the last. It would be all over billboards in the city of Smyrna, they believed they were the final word in the empire. It begins here with Caesar worship and it will end here with Caesar worship. We will last forever. If you worship in Smyrna, you will have eternal life. We are the ones! If you worship in Smyrna, you will never die.

Jesus is saying, "I'll tell you what, they are NOT the first and the last. I AM the First and the Last. He tells it to a church that is suffering and under pressure. What if our local governments were to say, "No more church, no more meetings," and then persecution would come against us. What would you do? You would be comforted by the words of God. You might have church on Sunday mornings, but you will still have church in your home on Sunday mornings right? You would gather together as a family with the Bible and be comforted by the Words you find in the Bible. We've all had to experience this during our 2020 pandemic when going to church was not possible. Most of us, simply streamed our services live from the internet, but what about those who didn't have access to the internet. We, sometimes, fail to see that not everyone has the simple things we take for granted everyday. I am convinced, they still picked up the Bible and continued to study the Word of God, no matter what was going on in the world. It's where we get our sense of strength.

Jesus is saying to a persecuted church, "I am the First and the Last. I am the peace you are looking for. Cities may come and go, but I will never go."

Did you realize that America is on the threshold of disappearing. You know that most nations only last around 200 years and we could be gone any day now.

John 14:27 ~ "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

John 16:33 ~ "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Any church that understands that Jesus is in charge, will be a church at peace. He is on the throne and He is our provider. He is eternal! He is the only one who is eternal!

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