Be faithful until death (Revelation 2:10).
We know next to nothing of persecution in the western church. This may be changing. Might we learn steadfastness from the church at Smyrna?
Smyrna was one of the great cities of Asia Minor. It enjoyed westward winds which brought gentle breezes from the Mediterranean Sea and it was a wealthy centre of art and culture, the supposed birth place of Homer. Smyrna boasted a huge sports stadium, library, theatre, and music hall. Smyrna also was a free city. That is, the Roman Empire gave Smyrna a measure of freedom because she had long been faithful to the Roman emperors. In fact Smyrna won the competition to gain the privilege of building a new monument to the great emperor Tiberias. When Roman soldiers were faring badly in a battle against Mithradates, the people of Smyrna gave their own resources to feed and clothe them. Smyrna was one of the first planned cities in the world. It was established in 1000 B.C. but had been destroyed when invaders sacked it in 600 B.C. In 200 B.C. Lysimachus rebuilt Smyrna with precision, placing the streets, library, and other important buildings in exactly the right place.
The Christians in Smyrna, however, were in great difficulty. There was a large population of Jews who hated the Christians because so many Jews were leaving Judaism for Christianity. Jesus said that he knew their tribulation and their poverty (Rev. 2:9). The word he uses to describe their poverty is not penia, which means lacking things superfluous, like having a television but lacking a flat screen, HD television. Instead he uses ptocheia, which means destitute, possessing nothing. The believers in Smyrna were the poorest of the poor. Their poverty was for at least two reasons. First, most were slaves and thus had no opportunity of upward mobility. And second, what little wealth they may gain (perhaps their own small house, a cow or a few goats) was regularly confiscated at the mere whim of people in power (Heb. 10:34). Jesus told them to expect tribulation for ten days. By this he means it will not last forever, but it nonetheless is real, and can come at any time. The Smyrna believers lived with the proverbial sword of Damocles over their heads. The persecution could come at any moment and it could be devastating. It came primarily from the Jews whom Jesus calls the synagogue of Satan. In Numbers 16:3 Israel is referred to as the congregation of the Lord, but the Jews had long since left their noble position. They had become the congregation of the devil.
The persecution was fuelled by wild and crazy notions. Since the Christians observed the Lord’s Supper with the elders referring to eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood, people said that the believers were cannibals. Because believers referred to communion as a love feast, people said Christians were moral degenerates, having orgies during their church meetings. Because Christianity often divided families, they were accused of being mean spirited and anti-family. Because they used no icons or idols in their worship, they were called atheists. Because they would not say ‘Caesar is Lord’ they were said to be revolutionaries, working to overthrow the Roman government. And because they spoke of the world being destroyed by a great conflagration of fire, they were called terrorists.
To the believers at Smyrna, the first and the last, the One who was dead and had come back to life told them simply, ‘Be faithful until death.’ He did not say that things would become easier. He did not say that he would rapture them out of that mess, that he would remove them to a safer, more ‘Christ friendly’ environment. Hardship, tribulation, and poverty would continue. Death was coming. Be faithful until the very end.
What does it mean to be faithful until death? The writer to the Hebrews said, ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God, and those who come to Him must believe that He is, and that He will reward those who diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6). Paul said, ‘Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is never in vain’ (1 Cor. 15:58). He also said about himself, ‘I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith’ (2 Tim. 4:7). In the closing of each of his seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor Jesus promises rewards to those who overcome, who make it to the end of their lives with their faith intact, who have not abandoned the faith. ‘To him who overcomes, I will grant him to eat from the tree of life which is in the paradise of God’ (Rev. 2:7); ‘he who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death’ Rev. 2:11); to him who overcomes I will give him some of the hidden manna and a white stone, and a name written on the stone which no one knows but him who receives it’ Rev. 2:17); ‘to him who overcomes, who keeps My word to the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, he will rule them with a rod of iron, as vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I have received authority from My Father, and I will give him the morning star’ Rev. 2:26-28); ‘he who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His holy angels’ Rev. 3:5); ‘to him who overcomes I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God and he will not go out from it any longer, and I will write on him the name of My God, the name of the city of My God which comes down out of heaven from My God and My new name’ Rev. 3:12); and to him who overcomes I will grant him to sit down on My throne as I overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne’ Rev. 3:21).
We know very little of the persecution which the Smyrna Christians experienced. The Southern Sudanese, the Iranian, the Indian, the Libyan, the Iraqi Christians all know this suffering first hand. Pray for our brethren, that they will not deny the faith, that they will cling to Jesus in the midst of their suffering, waiting for the day when they will receive their glorious inheritance. In the meantime, as you live out your life in this crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:14) daily cling to Jesus, your only refuge in this world. How do you cling to him? See your utter poverty without him. Ask for the filling of the Spirit daily, and when you sin, repeat the process of contrition, confession, and restoration.
When the Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS terrorists a few months ago, at first we were told there were twenty-one of them. However there were only twenty. One was an African from Chad, who was not a Christian. As all the men knelt on the beach and were given a chance to renounce their faith in Christ and to confess Muhammed as the last great prophet of Allah, each of the Coptic believers refused. When the time came for the African from Chad to respond, after hearing of the faith of these Christian men, who refused to deny their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, he said, ‘Their God is my God.’ And so he died with them, a Christian for only seconds, but one who, nonetheless, was faithful until death.
My friends, while we live in the lap of luxury and know untold wealth, we sometimes cannot even be faithful until ridicule. May God have mercy upon us and grant us the grace to be steadfast, to die to self and live to Jesus, no matter what the cost.
Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.
If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at email@example.com.
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