The Church Under Fire (Part 2), Revelation 2:8-11

But that’s not the only reason God tests us.  His testing is requisite for our sanctification.  While Satan tests us to induce us away from Christ, God tests us to bring us nearer to Christ.  Nearer relationally and nearer in resemblance.

World peace sounds nice but it’s not a biblical objective.  The Lord Jesus Christ contradicts human sentimentality of a Utopian peace where peoples around the world get along in harmony.  Jesus didn’t come to bring peace.  He came to bring a sword – He said.  He came to cause division, even as close as in the home.  Ask the Muslim or Orthodox Jew who converts to Christ.  

The reason there will be division and Jesus said so is because people want peace but they don’t want the peace-giver.  The world is left to its tumultuous condition because the world categorically rejects its Creator.  The Creator has no obligation to a world that sees itself as having no obligation to it’s Maker.  We learn a macro lesson of human existence:  without God there is no peace.  And the reason for unrest and turmoil is bifurcated.  On the one hand it is conditional and the other it is judicial.  In other words, the lack of peace is the condition that results when a rebellious humanity rejects the God of peace.  Refusing the Creator’s rules and attempting to create its own, humanity actually breaks down societies from the harmony it could enjoy and prevents the possibility of macro peace.  Plus, the very nature of man is corrupted, making him rebellious, and therefore oriented towards strife and division.  This is the conditional reason for lack of peace.  

The Judicial reason is that God judges the world for its rejection of Him by not allowing peace to ever occur.   It is a blessing from Him that He either grants or withdraws.  Until every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus as Lord there will be no peace between those knees and tongues.

Now we come to the Church.  World peace is not our objective.  Instead, the peace of the Gospel is our objective.  That means the peace that someone can have personally with God when they approach Him through faith in Jesus.  It means the possibility of inner peace in a chaotic world.  We the Church are cast into a hostile world that postures itself against everything we stand for.  God knows this.  He knew this before He did it.  We live in this world and in this world we will have trouble.  But, climatically, eschatologically, Jesus has overcome the world and so have we who belong to Him.  And while we pass through here and now, we find the unwelcoming society that belongs to Satan produces in us an inward bitterness towards all things worldly, and a fervent longing towards all the things of Christ.  We must remember that when we embrace Jesus Christ we inherit enemies.  A whole host of fallen angels, with the most sinister one as their head; human agents, even on national levels, all are immediately and viciously and instantly our sworn enemies for eternity.  Let this truth percolate.  Then let it push you towards the truth that in the midst of these enemies you have a Friend that is greater than the sum of all your enemies.

The persevering church at Smyrna counted deeply on this Friend.  And the word they received from Him, while unsettling in one respect because of the warning of coming persecution, in a greater respect is comforting, strengthening, and encouraging.  His Word is what they need to go through their trials.  Is the word of the Lord what we need?  I mean when it comes down to it and it’s just us and His word, do we believe it?  

Let’s review.  Last week we saw their Savior.  Then we saw their Persecution, the Onslaught of Opposition.  This Persecution was seen in 4 ways.  We looked at 1 last week:  Their Poverty.  We began to look at the 2 also:  the slander they suffered.  

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.

What we didn’t see last week was Who were the ones saying these things?  This is important to understand.  Jesus says, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but rather are a synagogue of Satan.”  These are not Gentiles pretending to be Jews.  These are ethnic Jews Jesus is talking about.  These are Jewish people who are very religious but reject Jesus Christ.  In John 8:42 Jesus said to the crowd of hostile Jews who didn’t believe in Him, “If God were your father you would love me, for I came from God and now am here.  But you are unable to hear what I say because you belong to your father, the devil.”  They didn’t belong to God they belonged to the Devil.  And so did the Jews in Smyrna who persecuted the Christians.  They were very religious but they rejected Jesus Christ.  How do we know they were very religious?  Because the most religious Jews were the most hateful towards Christianity.

But it is interesting that Jesus says “those who say they are Jews but are not…”  Paul said in Romans 2:28, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly…No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly.”  In other words, Paul said that just because you are biologically a Jew, a Jew by the flesh, it doesn’t mean that you are a true Jew.  To be a true Jew you have to be one inwardly, meaning your heart has to be right with God.  What they were biologically is not what they are spiritually.  And there is no reality without spiritual reality.

Have you ever noticed that in certain segments of our society it is insisted that what you are biologically it is not necessarily what you are personally.  For instance, you may be black biologically, but, being black is more than just your skin color.  It is a certain culture, with elements that if a black man does not display he can be viciously attacked for not “being black.”  This explains the trend when I was in school of white boys we called “wannabees”, who acted black – from listening to rap, to the gangsta clothing and language, to the attitudes and so on.  They were white skin but black culturally.

How does this relate to ancient Jews persecuting Christians?  Because, being a Jew ethnically didn’t necessarily mean you were a Jew spiritually.  Outward Jewishness didn’t prove inward Jewishness.  Be more specific?  Being born a physical descendent of Jacob, having citizenship in God’s covenant nation, offering temple sacrifices, being circumcised, and so on did not mean your heart was right with God.  A Jew could go through the motions of his religion just like a “Christian” can go through the motions of church today and not have any heart behind it.

In other words, it isn’t the outward religion or being born into a religious family that makes someone a true Jew.  It is the inner man of an ethnic Jew, who loves God and loves His commands, and loves God’s Son who is a true Jew.

Application:  Don’t let religion become a veneer for unbelief.  Don’t let your religious identity become a mask for what is actually a dead soul.  For us as a church we should aim that we never become a church of satan, who only has the right words and activities but has no true heart for Christ.

Third, they suffered imprisonment.  We see in Smyrna their possessions suffered, their reputation suffered, and now their freedom suffered.  Jesus says to them in 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…”  It is always Satan’s goal to silence the church.  And if he can limit the movements of God’s spokesmen through imprisonment he thinks he can limit preaching of God’s word.  

But imprisonment is the Christian way when we look at history.  Paul suffered imprisonment.  John the Baptist was imprisoned.  Peter and John were imprisoned.  Jeremiah was imprisoned.  Joseph was imprisoned.  Down through history the servants of God have been incarcerated because of their steadfast faith and their service to God.  Today there are untold numbers around the world who are in prison for their faith in Jesus Christ.  Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:9, “I am chained like a criminal for the gospel, but God’s word is not chained!”  He would write also, “Anyone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted

If you are treated as a criminal for your faith do not be alarmed.  First Peter 4:16 says, “If you suffer as a Christian do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

Notice too that Jesus says imprisonment was to “test” them.  Who is testing them?  Well, there are several answers.  Satan tests us by tempting us and assaulting us to try to get us to deny God or doubt Him.  By God’s permission he tested Job, trying with all his might to get Job to curse God.  By God’s permission the devil sifted Peter as wheat, getting the leader of the disciples to deny Christ 3 times.  Then with the church at Smyrna Satan had permission to test them hard for 10 days.  

Some people see this 10 days as symbolic, and, maybe it has symbolic meaning.  But, I prefer to take it as a literal 10 days first.  If symbolic meaning is also meant in addition to the 10 literal days, then so be it.  But, I like the rule that goes like this:  If the plain sense makes sense go with it.  Especially if the 10 days is not explained anywhere else as being symbolic, take it literally.  Here’s the point:  an intense but brief persecution is going to break out so stand firm through it.

But, ultimately God tests our faith.  Satan doesn’t do anything to believers without God’s permission.  So God has His reasons for allowing trials, tribulations, difficulties, hardships and persecutions to enter our lives.  He ordains them – to test us.  Think about that:  these are intentionally brought into our lives by God.  Sometimes our hardships are our own designs – the consequences of our own decisions.  But here Jesus clearly means God-ordained trials for the believers in Smyrna.  

Have you ever thought about this concept of testing?  Boil it down and when God is testing us He means to prove what is really inside of us.  Testing us is meant to bring out what is inside of us and make it visible through some expression.  Trials do that.  Why?  Why does life have to become hard for this goal?  Because in trials we are brought face to face with our own littleness – our limits and weaknesses and finiteness.  There is nothing like difficult circumstances to take us beyond our resources,  beyond our abilities, beyond our control to find out where our faith truly is and has been.  If there is faith inside of us that will come out.  If there is lack of faith that will come out.  If there has been double-mindedness (half trusting and half doubting) that will come out.  If there has been misplaced faith (trusting in things other than God) then that will all come out in trials.

But that’s not the only reason God tests us.  His testing is requisite for our sanctification.  While Satan tests us to induce us away from Christ, God tests us to bring us nearer to Christ.  Nearer relationally and nearer in resemblance.

So the question is:  What are the trials in our lives proving about us?  What are our difficulties bringing out of us?  Faith is not seen in us when we say “I see how I can solve this”. Faith is proven when I don’t see a way to solve my problem but I SEE GOD AND THAT’S ENOUGH!”  My faith is not strong when I say “I have what it takes to get through this”.  It’s when I say “With me this is impossible but with GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE and I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME!”  

And it’s not that God needs the trials to see what’s going on in us and where we’re really at, He is omniscient and sees everything in us.  So why does He do it?  To purify us.  To mold us.  

Fourthly, they were going to suffer martyrdom.  Their property and possessions were forfeited, their reputation was slandered, their freedom was arrested and finally, their lives would be forfeited.  Jesus says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death…”  In other words, “some of you are going to die for Me”  Only 50 years later the great pastor of Smyrna named Polycarp would be martyred for his faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  [Read MacArthur p 73-74)

Jesus said “do not fear those who can kill the body but do no harm after that.  Instead fear Him who after killing the body can throw your soul into hell.”  Hebrews 11:35b-38 [read].  We are told not to shrink back but stand firm.  Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:6 that his death would be like a drink offering.  A drink offering in the OT was the last thing to be added to the animal sacrifice and the drink offering produced a pleasing aroma before the Lord.  In other words, the whole of Paul’s ministry was a sacrifice like the animal on the altar and the final piece of his sacrifice was his own life, which was the completion of a life spent for God and brought about a pleasing sacrifice to God.

Application:  Once you know what you’re willing to die for you will know what you’re willing to live for.  Make your life a sacrifice to God.  And if the day comes when your life is going to end because of the name of Jesus Christ then let them have it.  Your life is in Christ, who will raise you up, because He Himself was once dead, but now is alive forever more.  In the words of a famous missionary, Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives away what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

#3:  The Great Promise (v10b, 11)

Jesus doesn’t make campaign trail promises.  He will deliver on every promise He’s made.  Listen to two such promises in verses 10 and 11, “Be faithful, even 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 will not be hurt at all by the second death.”  

Promise number one:  Anyone who is killed for staying true to Christ will get the crown of life.  “Crown” in the Greek is “stephanos”, which refers to the victors crown given to athletes who win contests.  It is different than the other crown, diadem, which is a crown of authority worn by rulers.  This victors crown of life is mentioned also in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God promises to those who love Him.”  

Both the verse in James and Revelation show us that the crown of life is given to people who suffer for their faith.  THey are in a contest so to speak – competing against an opposing team.  They are trying to stand for Christ and the other side is trying to make them give up on Christ.  These are people who are pressured to quit Christ and renounce His name but don’t do it and end up paying a huge cost in this life – even death.  But notice James includes something there that lets us know how we can endure:  love for God.  God has promised this crown to those who love Him – love Him more than their property, their job, their reputation, their families, their comfort, their needs and even their own lives.  Love for God, the Greatest command, is the key to persevering through persecution.

Promise number two:  those who overcome by their faith in Christ will not be touched by the second death.  Yes you read that and heard that correctly:  there are 2 deaths.  The first death is one that all of us will experience:  physical death.  But the second death is one that only the wicked and unbelieving will experience:  it is the eternal lake of fire.  Turn to Revelation 20:6, 11-15 and 21:8 with me.  Physical death – the first death – is your soul separating from your body, but the second death is separation from God.  Physical death is temporary (even the wicked will be raised up), but the second death is eternal.

And Jesus’ promise is that those believers who overcome won’t be touched by the second death.  The implication is that overcome means being willing to get killed for your faith.  The Lord wanted those believers to know that even though they may suffer the first death they won’t ever suffer the second death.  Jesus said in Luke 12:4, “I tell you my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But, I will show you whom you should fear:  fear Him who after the killing of the body has power to throw you into hell.  Yes I tell you, fear Him.”  Jesus is not talking about Satan.  He is talking about God.  Satan and evil men can only make you suffer the first death.  But they have no power to make you suffer the second death.  Only God can do that.  And He won’t do it for those who are His.  

Persecution is like a way of purifying the faith of the local church – separating out the wheat from the chaff, the real believers from the false believers.  False believers will never stand for Christ when persecution comes.  Like the dross melts away in the heat and only pure gold remains, so when the heat of persecution comes the unbelieving dross of the church will melt away and only those with true faith will remain.

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