In Apologetics, Christian Persecution, Courage, Devotional, Doctrine

I wish to focus this morning on one of the letters that the Lord Jesus dictated to the Apostle John, the letter that John has recorded in Revelation 2:8-11:

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 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. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. …” (ESV)

Jesus begins his letter by identifying himself as “the first and the last”. Why does he introduce himself in this way to the Christians in Smyrna? Part of the answer lies in the fact that this self-description emphasises his deity.

Jesus is both human and divine, and his divine attributes are of particular relevance for the Smyrnaean Christians. For, being God, he is the first and the last in knowledge—that is to say, he knows everything about everything from the beginning to the end. He is omniscient, all-knowing. Therefore, he knows all there is to know about the Christians who individually and collectively make up the church in Smyrna.

Indeed, his knowledge of the church is perfect, absolute, complete: he knows how they began and how they have progressed; he knows their present state and their current situation; and he knows what is about to befall them and what awaits them at the last. He knows all about them—and yet he finds nothing against them. What a comfort it must have been to these Christians to learn that the Lord approved of them. And his approval is not based on mistaken information: he is not going to say to them next week, “Look, if I’d only known about such-and-such I would have spoken to and about you differently!” No! There is no gap or defect in his knowledge—he is the first and the last in knowledge—so his assessments are always sound and never need to be revised or rescinded.

Furthermore, Jesus is the first and the last in power—that is to say, there is no limit to his power. He is omnipotent, all-powerful. Therefore, the Smyrnaean church can be confident that he is able to sustain them through the tribulation they are about to suffer. Furthermore, he is able to keep his promises—such as his promise never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and his promise never to allow us to be tested beyond our endurance (cf 1 Corinthians 10:13). And he is able to fulfil the promise he makes to them in his letter—the promise to give them “the crown of life”—because he has the power to do what he says he will do.

We sometimes make promises that we have no power to keep. With the best of intentions, we might say to someone who is suffering ill health—“You’ll get better soon, I promise.” Such promises are usually little more than heartfelt wishes. We have little or no power to bring them about. Even when a promise seems more realistic—“I promise I won’t be late”—we often find that circumstances prevent us from keeping them. But Jesus’ promises are backed by his omnipotence. Be-cause he is all powerful, he can and will deliver on his promises. His promises are our certainties.

Jesus goes on to say to the Smyrnaean Christians: “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

From this statement we learn that the Christians in Smyrna are in a bad way. They are experiencing persecution so great that it could only be described as “tribulation”. They are utterly poverty-stricken. And they are being subjected to slander by enemies who are in league with Satan. They are in a bad way.

And yet … they themselves are not bad!

Indeed, Jesus himself has nothing bad to say about them. Quite the contrary. He says tenderly, “I know”—I am the first and the last in knowledge, I walk among the lampstands of my churches—I know you and I know you are suffering for me and I know the things that are being said about you are vile lies by people who are motivated by the father of lies, the Devil!

I know these things, Jesus tells them. And then he tells them something else he knows, “but you are rich”.

To the other churches Jesus says, “I have a few things against you”; or, “I have this against you”; or, “you are dead”; or “you are neither hot nor cold”. But concerning the character and conduct of the Christians who comprise the church at Smyrna he says simply, “you are rich”. Jesus commends only two of the seven churches unreservedly: Philadelphia is one, and Smyrna is the other.

The Christians in the church in Smyrna, Jesus says, are rich.

They had come to understand that the Lord bestows “his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12); and they had called on him and had received “the immeasurable riches of his grace” (Ephesians 2:7). So, when it came to a choice between one or the other, they chose “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Philippians 3:8) rather than the uncertain riches of this world. And as a consequence, the Father, “according to the riches of his glory,” granted them to be “strengthened with power through his Spirit in [their] inner being” (Ephesians 3:16).

They knew, they actively and approvingly understood, that it is not profitable for a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his soul. They knew that a man’s “life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). They knew it is better “to be rich in good works” (1 Timothy 6:18) than to be rich in gold coins. They knew the fear of the Lord is better than great treasure (Proverbs 15:16). They were learning that “God [has] chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5). That is why, though they were dirt poor, Jesus said to them, “but you are rich”.

In all likelihood, a key cause of the poverty of the Smyrnaean Christians was the slander of their enemies. Their standing in the community was ruined because people who hate Christ and Christianity were lying about them and besmirching their reputations, so that no one would employ them or partner with them in trade or associate with them in any way.

The experience of those Christians raises certain questions for us 1,900 years on.

The first is: Are we willing to suffer financial loss—and even poverty—for Christ? This is no longer an academic question for Christians in the West. Ask Israel Folau and other Christians who have lost their employment in Australia, Europe and America for taking a public stand on Christian morality.

The second question is: Are we contributing to the oppression of our fellow Christians by believing and repeating slanders against them? How quick are we to believe the reports of media organisations about our brothers and sisters in Christ? Have we adopted their contemptuous view on, for example, the Reverend Fred Nile.

It is a terrible thing when anti-Christians slander Christians. But it is even more terrible when Christians believe and repeat these slanders. We shouldn’t be too quick to believe what our enemies say about our friends. These are the same media people and organisations who would mock and vilify us for believing, for example, that there is a God, that the Bible is true, that God created the world, that marriage rightfully belongs to a man and a woman, that life in the womb is precious, et cetera. Don’t be too quick to believe what the opponents of Christianity say about Christianity and Christians.

Jesus continues his letter to the church in Smyrna: “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. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This is a rich and complex statement, and it begins in an astonishing way.

Jesus says, “Do not fear …” So far, so good. But notice what Jesus does not go on to say. He does not say, “Do not fear … be-cause everything is going to be okay.” He does not say, “Do not fear … because I will protect you from all harm.” He does not say, “Do not fear … because you have nothing to fear.”

He doesn’t say any of the things that we might expect him to say. In fact, he says the exact opposite.

Jesus tells the Christians in the church in Smyrna, “Do not fear … what you are about to suffer!” If we invert the word order, the shock of Jesus’ words is even more apparent: You are about to suffer … [but] do not fear! On the face of it, this seems a strange, and even a counterproductive, way to comfort someone.

We see here that Jesus does not promise his followers a life free from suffering. He does not promise to save Christians from the “ordinary” sufferings of life, such as illnesses, accidents and disasters. Sometimes he does save us from such things, but he does not promise always to do so. Nor does he promise to save Christians from the sufferings that arise from the malice and schemes of evil men. He does not promise that we will be spared persecution and ill-treatment.

In fact, concerning persecution, the reverse is true. In John 15:18-21, Jesus forewarns his disciples that they will be harassed and maltreated:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. …

Jesus is forewarning the Christians in Smyrna of much the same thing. They are about to suffer increased persecution—and the specific nature of that persecution will be imprisonment. Indeed, some of them are going to die as martyrs—for that surely is implicit in Jesus’ admonition, “Be faithful unto death”.

Jesus’ letter to the church in Smyrna teaches us that Christians will not always be spared serious persecution, and it is imperative that we learn this lesson. Jesus acknowledges that the Smyrnaean Christians are currently suffering tribulation, poverty and slander, and he forewarns them that worse—imprisonment and martyrdom—is coming. He has not put a stop to the persecution they already suffer, and he will not put a stop to the persecution they are about to suffer. He will strengthen and comfort them throughout their ordeal and he will reward them after it, but he will not spare them from it.

Jesus does not promise to save us from suffering. Certainly, we can earnestly plead with him to spare us from serious persecution, and we can diligently do what we are able to avert it. But we should never feel that he has promised to spare us and is therefore obliged to spare us. Such a notion is not only false, but also debilitating. For how can we prepare ourselves if we believe we will never be tested? And how can we continue to trust in the Lord while suffering if we think he has broken his promise to us?

There is another important matter we can learn about suffering from Jesus’ letter: Personal suffering is not necessarily the result of personal wrongdoing. The Christians at Smyrna are not suffering because they are guilty of some sin. Yes, of course, they are sinners saved by grace through faith, like every Christian—but unlike the Christians in five of the seven churches, they are not habituated to serious sin. Jesus lays no charge against them, nor does he connect their suffering to any wrongdoing on their part.

Jesus has not been reluctant to charge the other churches with sin, nor has he been reluctant to warn that they will be punished for their sin unless they repent. The fact that he makes no such charge and gives no such warning to the church in Smyrna shows that their pending suffering is not due to their personal sin. This soon-to-be-suffering church has done no wrong: the wrong is on the side of those who are about to inflict the suffering.

It is important that we understand this clearly: What the Christians in Smyrna are about to suffer is not a punishment—it is a persecution! They are not about to suffer because they are sinners—they are about to suffer because they are saints! It is a complete reversal of what we might expect: these Christians are not destined to suffer because they are wicked but because they are righteous. And while Jesus is delighted by their uprightness, Satan is incensed by it.

So then, Jesus establishes in his letter to the Smyraean church, firstly, that innocent people can suffer and, secondly, that suffering is not necessarily an expression of God’s displeasure. These are deeply important truths for us to understand.

We should not be too quick to think badly of ourselves when we are suffering some disease or disaster or discrimination—and we should not be too quick to think that God is punishing us. And we should exercise the same caution in our assessment of others in their suffering, too. We should not be too quick to think badly of them, or too quick to assume that God is judging them.

As for the Christians in Smyrna, Jesus states that “the devil” is responsible for the suffering they are facing. The Lord is not punishing them: the devil is persecuting them. Satan is the author of their suffering, not God.

Of course, Satan doesn’t have the power to take matters into his own hands. He doesn’t have the power to act unilaterally. He can only do what God permits, and evidently God is going to permit Satan to persecute the Smyrnaean Christians. That persecution will be by the hands of the people whom Satan has stirred up to slander the Christians in Smyrna.

However, God is not going to allow Satan and his allies a free hand. He is going to permit only some of the Christians to be persecuted, not all of them. And he is going to limit the extent of their suffering—their tribulation will be of “ten days”. This does not mean literally ten days, but rather symbolises both a finite time and a short time. The point is that God will not allow the Christians to be imprisoned forever. Jesus assures them that they will suffer for a period—ten days, ten months, ten years—at most, ten decades—then on to a suffering-free eternity! The Apostle John himself suffered many decades of persecution and imprisonment—but what a short time that was compared to the 1,900 years he has now spent with the Lord, with (for starters) 1,900 trillion years to go!

Furthermore, God is not captive to Satan’s purposes in persecuting the Smyrnaean Christians. Satan intends to
crush them, but God intends to test them, and God’s intention will win out.

So then, their suffering is not pointless. The purpose of the suffering is “that you may be tested”. God is turning Satan’s actions against him. The suffering will test their faith, and their faith will stand the test, because Jesus will be with them to strengthen them from go to whoa.

And God is not intending to test the Christians in Smyrna because he wants to see if they will fail. He is going to test them to prove that they won’t fail! It’s the same contest that Satan had with the Lord over Job. God had confidence in Job and he has confidence in the Smyrnaean Christians, too. His confidence was vindicated in the case of Job, and it will be vindicated in the case of the Smyrnaean Christians, too. For God and his people know what Satan cannot begin to conceive: His people love him not because he is a sugar daddy but because he is a loving Father. We have found out the greatness of his loving heart and we want to rest in that love and go on finding out the greatness of it for eternity. Primarily, we love God not because he gives us good things but because he is himself Good. He is good and loving through and through and our hearts pant after him as the deer pants after a flowing stream. And he knows this about us and he is prepared to allow us to be put to the test to prove it.

If we keep all these things in mind, we can see the rightness of Jesus saying to the Christians in Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Do not be afraid. Yes, you are indeed about to suffer. But …

  • I have forewarned you of the coming ordeal so that you can prepare yourself.
  • Satan is orchestrating this, not God; and it is an expression of Satan’s anger, not God’s.
  • So, take it to heart, this is not a punishment but a persecution.
  • You will be suffering as a saint, not a sinner.
  • Your suffering will not be futile or pointless, for while Satan means to harm you, God means to test you.
  • God means to test you not because he doubts you but because he is confident in you—he means to prove the sincerity of your faith, to his eternal glory, your eternal benefit, and Satan’s eternal shame.
  • I am the first and the last—and I will limit what Satan can do to you from the first to the last.
  • I am the first and the last—and I will be with you in your suffering from beginning to end.
  • After you come through this period of suffering, I will reward you with the crown of life.

So, then, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.”

To conclude my comments on suffering, let me return to the matter of Jesus’ self-description at the start of his letter: “the first and the last, who died and came to life”. By describing himself as the One who died and came to life, Jesus reminds the Smyrnaean Christians, and he continues to remind Christians everywhere, that he himself has suffered. Yes, he “came to life” again, and that speaks of his everlasting resurrection triumph—but that triumph was achieved through horrendous suffering. Jesus knows what it is to suffer vilification and violence. So, when he tells us that we will suffer for him, he does not do so lightly. He is not glib or indifferent or callous about our sufferings. He knows what suffering is—for he, foremost among men, was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

I suppose, during times of suffering, we all have encountered people who have given us advice that strikes us as inept and ignorant—advice that seems to miss or dismiss the reality that is smothering us. And I further suppose that at such times we have all felt the same sense of hurt, and even of anger. A comforter says, “You’ll get through this and be all the stronger for it”—but in our hearts we respond, “Oh, it’s easy for you to say!” “Time heals all wounds”—“It’s easy for you to say!” “Keep looking up”—“Oh, have mercy, it’s easy for you to say!”

But it isn’t easy for Jesus to speak about our suffering. He is not speaking from a distance. He is not speaking from a pulpit. He is speaking from experience. He knows what he is talking about and he speaks with the utmost intimacy and sympathy. He says to us, in effect, “Suffering is coming your way, but it won’t last and you will come through it: I know because I died and came back to life. I suffered without cause and came through it to receive the reward—and so will you. And, my darlings, let me comfort you further with this: I was alone when I suffered—even my disciples forsook me in the Garden, even my Father forsook me on the Cross—but you will never be alone during your suffering, for I am alive forevermore and by my Spirit I will never leave you nor forsake you. And when your suffering is finished, I will gather you to myself—I will be your reward, and as a bonus I will give you the crown of life.”

Dear people, there are frightening things in the world, and it seems there are more frightening things coming. But don’t be too frightened of them. Keep your eyes on Jesus. Cling to him. Cast all your cares on him, knowing that he cares for you. And remember always, his loving exhortation and promise: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke12:32).

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