“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” “86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” “I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.” “Call them,” Polycarp replied. “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.” “If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.” “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
I want to take you back almost 2000 years ago to meet one of the most venerable men known to the Christian faith – Polycarp, the bishop of the Church in Smyrna. We rewind history to about 150 AD and find this 86 year old man being led as a captured criminal into a Roman Colloseum by an impressive military escort and the political leaders of Smyrna.
Polycarp’s crime? He was a Christian. And as such he refused to worship Caesar. As he was ushered into the riotous stadium he found it overflowing with blood-thirsty citizens eager for this famous Christian’s death to be their entertainment.
Polycarp was the spiritual son of John the Apostle – John discipled Polycarp. Jesus said in Luke 12, “I tell you whoever acknowledges me before men the Son of Man will acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me will be disowned before the angels of God. Now let me read to you the account of this man’s testimony: Click here
This morning we are leaving Ephesus and heading north about 25 miles to a city called Smyrna. While Ephesus was considered the political and economic powerhouse in the region, Smyrna was considered to be unmatched in its beauty. However, while the city was pleasing to look at, we come to the only thing in that city the Lord found pleasure in: the believers. They were in hot water for their faith, and they were faithful. So, today as we drive through Smyrna we are going to see a persecuted Church – a church under fire.
And Jesus knew their persecutions – He said to them in Revelation 2:9, “I know your affliction…” The word for affliction means “pressure”. Think of a mosh pit, a running back still on his feet with a bunch of opponents holding on and pushing him down, or a mob closing in on its victim. Think of the riots you see today when the violent crowds swarm a car and press in on it.
The church at Smyrna was under intense and hostile pressure specifically because of their faith in Jesus Christ. It is common in the NT and in church history that when the Church is persecuted the result is that the Church is strongest and most pure during those times. And that is true of Smyrna as well. It presents to us the real possibility as Christians that we in many ways or in big ways will be forced to choose between what is comfort or convictions.
Looking at Smyrna we see a church whose faithfulness was a sweet aroma to the Lord. As a matter of fact the Greek word for Smyrna refers to a perfume that was given as gifts and used on the dead for burial customs. The substance used to make the perfume came from a plant that when it was crushed it gave off a sweet perfume. How fitting for a church that was being crushed, and while being crushed gave off a sweet fragrance to the Lord.
Why was the Church at Smyrna suffering? John MacArthur points out 3 reasons. First, the Christians refused to worship the Emperor. The city of Smyrna was famous for its cult of emperor worship. They offered sacrifices to the emperor in the temple built for the emperor. And because the Christians would not offer those sacrifices they were seen as rebels.
Secondly, the believers in Smyrna suffered because they did not participate in the socio-religious pagan activities going on in Smyrna. A lot of the social life of Smyrna revolved around pagan worship. But because the Christians wouldn’t participate they were seen as antisocial. Ironically, because the city worshipped all kinds of gods and the Christians wouldn’t worship those gods the Christians were called atheists.
Lastly, the suffering of the Christians at Smyrna came about because of the Jews in that city. We will look at this a little more a little later.
The Church of Smyrna presents us with a question: Would I be faithful to Jesus if I were persecuted? I think all of us at one point or another have asked ourselves that question. Whether hearing a story of someone around the world today who was imprisoned, tortured or murdered for their faith in Christ and we put ourselves in their shoes and ask the question. Or we ask the question after watching the anti-Christian sentiment growing in the culture at large. Or we may ask the question to ourselves after reading heroes of the Bible: Daniel in the lion’s den, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo in the furnace, Noah harassed while building the ark, Nehemiah leading the building of the wall while threatened by neighboring kings, Stephen courageously preaching knowing his life would end because of it, or Paul hunted down by Pharisaical predators. It’s like inexperienced soldiers who go through training and wonder how they will react when they are in their first battle. Will they be cowardly or courageous? So we, the soldiers of Christ, as we continue our training, wonder on occasion how we will be on the day we are forced to choose death with Christ, or life by denying Him.
Under this pressure the words of their Savior would be a holy boost in their perseverence. Let’s look at 3 parts of this message: The Great Savior, the Great Onslaught, and the Great Hope.
#1: The Great Savior (v8)
Smyrna was under fire. When you realize this was a church under intense persecution for their faith, then you realize that the way Jesus introduces Himself to them in verse 8 is not random, “These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and rose to life again.” How pertinent for people facing death to hear from the One who conquered death. They would have understood what Jesus was saying. There is no suffering they will undergo that He will not conquer. It’s like Jesus could have said, “Will they put you to death? I will bring you back to life. After all they put me to death and yet I have risen!” Jesus wanted them to be reassured that there was nothing their enemies could do to them that He did not have power over. They were not to be afraid, “I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body but after that can do no more.” (Luke 12:4)
There is a particular kind of fellowship with Christ that happens in the middle of suffering. Suffering is a special doorway into a certain kind of closeness with Christ that you cannot have any other way. It’s a dimension of friendship with Christ that only comes when you go through what He went through. Perhaps that is why Paul welcomed suffering for Christ’s name, for in Philippians 3:10 he said, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death.” Suffering for Christ was a certain badge of honor. Philippians 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him”. When Peter and John were severely whipped because of their preaching it says in Acts 5:41, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Suffering because of Christ is not something any of us should ever be surprised at. Jesus said in John 15:20, “If they persecuted me they will persecute you also.” And “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Peter remembered those words and 30 years later said something similar. Turn to 1 Pet 4:12-16
Application: Do we know our Lord is greater than what we are going through? What keeps us from being overwhelmed by our trials is having the greatness of Jesus Christ overwhelm us. And on the day you are called to make a stand for Christ and suffer for His name, then do so knowing that He is ever near you, and that He will honor you when you suffer disgrace for Him – “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8)
#2: The Great Onslaught (v9-10)
Secondly we see the great onslaught. Notice the onslaught of suffering this church is facing in verses 9-10 with me, [Read].
Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “In fact everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The Church at Smyrna was a church that knew full well what these words meant. Let’s notice 4 ways they suffered in these verses.
First, they suffered poverty. Jesus says in verse 9, “I know your afflictions and your poverty…” The original Greek word for poverty here is a word that describes “beggars, who live not by their own labor but by the alms of others”. This describes extreme financial hardship. They were past the “more month than money left” scenario. For them it was a “more day than bread left.” When it came to earthly possessions and material wealth they had none. No doubt many were suffering poverty because of their faith. Hebrews 10:34 says, “You…joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” Later on in Revelation 13 we see that you cannot buy or sell unless you have the mark of the beast. Financial persecution is not uncommon against Christians. Even today people are losing jobs because of their stance for Jesus Christ. Chic-fil-A had a huge lashback for their stance on marriage. Atlanta’s Fire and Rescue Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired several years ago for his stance on marriage. Good luck staying in business as a baker or wedding photographer if you want to stand on your Christian convictions regarding marriage.
A couple things present themselves to us at this point. First, Jesus doesn’t do anything about their poverty. He doesn’t promise them if they plant a “seed” that they will get rich. He doesn’t tell them they are poor because of their lack of faith. The prosperity Gospel is buncombe and the preachers you see on TV are fakes. They don’t preach for Christ.
But notice secondly the very peculiar statement Jesus makes to them: They are rich! I know your poverty, but you are rich! What they were on earth they were not in heaven. Paul said the same thing in 2 Corinthians 6:10, “having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” From His place in heaven Jesus could see their incredible heavenly wealth and He was telling them they were loaded. Filthy rich. Ephesians 1:3 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Contrast Smyrna with the Laodicean church in 3:17. Jesus says they were materially rich on earth but materially poor in heaven. Jesus says to them, “You say “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” What does wealth before the world matter if we are poor before the Lord?
It reminds us that we are not to hope for riches in this world, but, hope for the riches of heaven. Jesus admonishes us in Luke 12, “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, treasures in heaven that will not be exhausted…” We find 1 Timothy 6:6-10 pushes us further away from a worldly view of wealth.
Second, they suffered slander. They not only suffered poverty, they suffered slander. The Greek word for slander here is “blasphemia”, and it is usually translated as blasphemy, which means to speak evil of. Slander basically means to ruin the reputation of someone unjustly. Slander means to portray someone as evil, characterizing them as evil, and basically getting others to think that someone is a bad and sinister person.
These believers were suffering blasphemy. It is interesting that Jesus uses the word blasphemy here. Blasphemy is used to describe sinful speech against God. But here Jesus says people were committing blasphemy in the way they spoke of Christians. You know what I make of this? Whenever a Christian is spoken of in an unjust and evil way because of the name of Christ, it is an offense not only to that Christian but also to Jesus Christ. In other words if you speak evil against Christians you speak evil against Jesus Christ. One reason for this is our union with Christ. We are His Body and He is our Head. We are His Bride and He is our Husband. Taking this one step further, the sufferings of Christ continue in the Church. Jesus personally is finished suffering, but, suffering for His name and suffering the kinds of things He suffered are ordained for the Church. This is why Paul said in Colossians 1:24, “Now 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.”
Application: When people attack you they are effectively attacking Christ.
What sorts of evil were people saying? Christians were said to be cannibals because of a twisted understanding of the Lord’s Supper. They were said to be immoral because of a perversion of the “holy kiss” Christians gave one another. They were accused of breaking up homes as conflict often arose when one spouse became a Christian and the other did not. They were accused of being atheists because they did not worship the idols in the city and instead worshipped an invisible God. And they were accused of political disloyalty because of their refusal to worship the emperor as a god.
Application: The persecution that people inflict on Christians usually is based on some twisted understanding of what Christians believe. Don’t be surprised when people accuse you of believing things you don’t actually believe. First Peter 2:19 says, “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.”
Part 2 is next week. Let us close with our question: How will we respond when we are faced with the choice to either die for Christ or deny Him to live? I might suggest that that kind of epic faithfulness is eventuated by faithfulness in the small everyday things of our lives. What I’m offering is the idea that we can prepare ourselves for faithfulness in rare big things by faithfulness in the quotidian Christian things. We pattern our lives on faithfulness to Christ. What is His will this day, in this decision, in this situation? Can I also say that if we develop a conviction about what we are willing to die for it will profoundly impact our orientation in this world. Love for the temporary things will dissipate and love for eternal things will intensify.