READ : Revelation 2:8-11
The Christian life issues in a fantastic result: salvation. There’s just one thing, though: eternal life isn’t promised to those who begin the Christian life but those who endure faithful to the end.
Listen to this from the risen Lord to the church in Smyrna:
To the angel of the church in 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 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 will 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 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.
Rev. 2:8-11, NIV
REASSURANCE FOR SUFFERERS
These are the words of Jesus to a suffering first-century church, and to people everywhere who are passing through the fires. His opening words remind us that he is not only the first and the last, the origin and the destiny of all things, but also the one who was dead and came to life. Jesus is no detached observer of the human scene. He’s the one who came from his glory to share our life and die our death. He has already faced the worst that this world can inflict. He has passed through death, agonizing death, and now lives forever.
This for me, friends, is what makes the gospel so believable. The more we learn about the evils, the sufferings, the heartbreaking sorrows of life in this world, the more difficult it becomes to have confidence in any spectator God, someone who calls down to us from a secure vantage point. In Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague,” a doctor in the midst of ravaging illness hears radio broadcasts of good will. “Oran, we’re with you,” they call emotionally. But not really, the doctor tells himself, not to love or to die together — and that’s the only way. They’re too remote.”
And so would God be “too remote” if all he did was send messages from a safe distance. What comfort could such a deity give to those who are crushed, broken-hearted, in desperate anguish? The wonder of Jesus’ coming, God in the flesh, is that the Lord of the universe is really with us, with us in the midst of our plagues, sharing our sorrows, bearing our burdens, dying for our sins. Words of comfort from a suffering Savior, a wounded brother, are words that truly reach our hearts.
I love these lines from the distinguished historian, Arnold Toynbee. He is writing of varius persons in history who have been given the title “Savior.” One was the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who was greatly loved and revered for his “unruffled imperturbability” — that is, nothing bothered him. Toynbee mentions seeing also an immense reclining statue of a god in Thailand which expresses conscious, deliberate remoteness from our human situation. Then he writes, “As we, in this our “Time of Troubles” wait on the banks of Time’s river in anguished longing for a deliverer, a single figure rises from the flood and straightway fills the whole horizon: There is the Savior, and the pleasure of the Lord will prosper in his hand; he shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”
Yes, friends, there is the Savior, the crucified and risen Jesus, the God who is with us in the worst of times.
Listen to what he says to the sufferers in Smyrna: “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” Think of that. “I know your affliction.” Sometimes we have the lonely, desolate feeling that no one understands what we’re going through. Maybe it seems that way to you right now. It was out of the wrenching experience of slavery that blacks in the U.S. came to sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” But that wasn’t the end of that moving spiritual. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” But he does know; he can understand. He’s been there. He’s seen all that trouble.
New New Testament writer to the Hebrews celebrates this same comfort: “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our infirmities, but one who in all points has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” He knows; he feels what the believers in Smyrna are enduring, and what you’re going through right now. Isn’t that great to know?
HE UNDERSTANDS POVERTY
He knows their poverty too. There are different definitions of that, aren’t there? Each country in the modern world sets for its own citizens what is called “the poverty level.” Everyone in that nation is either above or below that line. For some, being poor means not having all you need; for others, it means not having anything. The word used here speaks of that second kind—people who are desperately poor.
The Lord knows about our economic circumstances. Have you remembered that lately? We sometimes imagine that God doesn’t know or care about that mundane dimension of our life. That’s something, we think, that we have to handle and worry about. But the Lord notices what we don’t have, as well as what we have and how we use it. And he can say to his people even when they are in abject poverty (and only he can really say this) that in his eyes they are truly rich. Sometimes poor people know this. I’ve met some of them. I’ve seen their surroundings. I’ve noted how meager their circumstances are. But I’ve also seen the light in their eyes and the joy on their faces because they know the Lord. They have the treasure of forgiveness, the wealth of hope, the gift of purpose, the priceless presence of the Lord with them all the days. They’re poor in things, yes, but they wouldn’t trade what they have for anything else. Jesus has told them they are rich, and they believe it; they enjoy it.
What have these Christians in Smyrna been facing? Jesus speaks of the slander that has come against them from professedly religious people. He knows about that too, doesn’t he? The people who treated him worst and spread venomous charges about him were not the tax-collectors and sinners but the religious authorities, those who claimed to uphold true piety. These servants of Jesus in Smyrna have learned how bitter it is to be spoken against and falsely accused—especially by people who profess to know God. Jesus knows about this and sees that the slanderers are doing the devil’s work.
And more serious trouble seems to be looming ahead. Some of these in Smyrna are going to be thrown into prison for a time, perhaps as a prelude to execution. The devil himself will be behind all this—accusing, intimidating, destroying. The saints will go through terrible testing and affliction. The worst, apparently, is still to come.
Jesus does not say that he will spare them from all this. He sees it coming; it grieves his heart, but he’s letting it happen, and he doesn’t explain why. That’s hard to understand, isn’t it?
What he does say is, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” They might have wondered “Why not, Lord?” It looks like there’s plenty to be afraid of—imprisonment, affliction, torture perhaps, possibly death.” But Jesus says, “Fear not” (One scholar says that there are 365 “fear nots” in the Bible—one for every day of the year. I haven’t counted them myself, but I’m sure we need at least one every day). The “fear not” always includes a companion promise: “for I will be with you . . . I will never fail you nor forsake you . . . be not dismayed, for I am your God . . . when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you, for I am the Lord your God.” “Whatever is coming,” the Lord promises, “I’ll be there.”
FAITHFUL UNTIL DEATH
Now here’s the last charge for them, and the best promise: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” For those of us who live in relatively secure surroundings, with little threat of overt persecution for our faith, this may sound like a long-term project. We are to keep on following Jesus, day-in-day-out, year-in, year-out—until the end out there. It must have a different sound, though, when those hearing it may face martyrdom next week, or even tomorrow. That was the situation for many in Smyrna. Jesus calls them to stand fast, keep the faith, remain true to their testimony in the immediate future, amid all the perils they now face.
It’s striking to remember that in this very city, Smyrna, a scant two generations later, a great servant of God would face martyrdom. He might have been there in the congregation as a young man when this letter was first delivered. He might have heard the words: “be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life” His name was Polycarp. He was bishop of the church in Smyrna at about a.d. 155. The authorities demanded that he worship the emperor, that he deny that Christ is the only Lord. They apparently were ready to release him if he would only submit. Do you remember what he said? “Eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I deny my King who saved me.”
They threatened him with fire and began to gather wood for it. “It is well,” said Polycarp. “I fear not the fire that burns for a season and then is quenched. Why do you delay? Come, do your will.” And so they burned him alive, braised him, as it were, in a giant bowl. As the heat seared his body, he was heard to pray, “I thank you that you have graciously thought me worthy of this day and this hour, that I may receive a portion in the number of your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ.”
Polycarp, like a host of others, was faithful until death. Jesus promised all of them the crown of life—which was not a metal coronet of royalty such as we often think of but rather the garland for victors in the games, a sign of the Lord’s approval, a token of his words “well done!”
For all such victors, the risen Lord has a final promise. Whoever conquers in this warfare of faith “will not be harmed by the second death.” The first death, that of the body, will claim us all. Soon or late, by violence or in peace, we will breathe our last. That death has no terrors for us any more because of our Lord’s triumph. We exult, “O death, where is your sting . . . O grave, where is your victory. The sting of death is sin. The strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The second death is what’s fearful. That’s the fate that follows judgment, the doom of all who spurn God’s offered mercy in Christ. But those who are faithful till they die will awake on resurrection morning to eternal life and joy. They will not come into condemnation, but will pass, says Jesus, from death to life.”
All of us, of course, would rather avoid, if we could, the affliction, trial and martyrdom that came to believers in ancient Smyrna. But whether it comes or not, friends, may we stand true to Christ, faithful till we die!