Smyrna: The suffering church

Publié le 10 juillet 2021 dans Traductions

Sermon by Pastor Samuel Niblack

As we approach summer vacation, we often take to the road, and sometimes we see signs pointing to historic sites, such as 13th century churches. This summer we are visiting 7 churches from the 1st century. This morning, we are visiting Smyrna (modern-day Izmir).

Let’s read Revelation 2:8-11

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander[a] of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 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. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

The church we are going to look at this morning would probably be our last choice, and yet it is one of the only ones that receives no reproach from its Lord, this suffering, persecuted church: the church of Smyrna. 

From our relatively comfortable situation, it is always a bit tricky to talk about the persecuted church. We can be interested for the wrong reasons, such as:

-To be interested just enough to give oneself a good conscience.

-Others will talk about it to make themselves feel guilty. But we are not God, we cannot decide when and under what circumstances we will live out our faith… 

-There can be an unhealthy interest in exaggerating the spirituality of the persecuted church. In the early centuries, the cult of the martyrs took on a harmful, unhealthy magnitude. It was as if Christians started seeking the martyr as a passport to heaven, or the bizarre practice of relics. 

So you see, we are not in an easy position to talk about the persecuted church. Yet we would do well to take an interest. Every church gets a message but also needs to hear what Jesus is saying to others, even if they are not all experiencing the same thing (2:11) We need to hear Jesus speak to the persecuted church in order to better live out our faith and our trials.  It reminds us that some churches are going through the same things today. It prepares us to deal with it better if ever trials arrive, and more generally, it equips us to live through all kinds of afflictions and trials (cf. Reyes’ testimony, covid, etc). Whether it is prison and martyrdom, or any other trial (…), the words of Jesus in Smyrna and his call to faithfulness can help us.

In this passage, we learn that:

Jesus knows our afflictions

Jesus limits our afflictions

Jesus raises us through our afflictions

Jesus knows our afflictions. 

v9: I know your affliction and your poverty (though you are rich). One of the hardest things to bear in suffering is the feeling that no one really knows what you are going through. The jobs of those who accompany the afflicted are valuable (doctors, therapists), but sometimes there is a limit to what they can do, not knowing exactly what the other is going through. Sometimes the best support is someone who knows you well and knows your trial to its exact detail. 

Poverty: Smyrna was a rather wealthy city, the capital of commerce – that Christians are poor in Smyrna shows exclusion.  

Slander: the Christians of the 1st century were between a rock and a hard place, between the Roman Empire who could not stand their monotheism, for the Romans it was blasphemy to say that Jesus was the only Lord. and the Jews who did not think that they were monotheistic enough and accused them of blasphemy by saying that Jesus was God.  The communists in Eastern Europe had this unbeatable reasoning: you have to be crazy, insane, to be a Christian in our time, if you are a Christian, then you have a psychiatric problem, you have to be entrusted to our care and rehabilitation methods…. 

Jesus is very encouraging: the world calls you poor, but I know the reality, you are rich. The Jews and the Romans slander you, but I know the reality, these Jews are not, this kind of corrupt Judaism is « synagogue of Satan ». 

Jesus knows, not only because he knows everything, but because he has lived it. The same slanders that led him to the cross by the Jews and the Romans together. Jesus was called a blasphemer, a madman, a conspirator. This Jesus so poor in the eyes of the world, and yet rich.  

A secret suffering? Jesus knows. An unfavorable opinion? Jesus thinks otherwise. 

Jesus limits our afflictions

v10, The devil will cast some into prison, and you will be tested and have tribulation for 10 days. Jesus calls some to be faithful unto death. We know from history that a bishop/pastor from Symre named Polycarp was martyred in the 2nd century.

The 10 days, difficult to know if it is 10 days in the basic sense, or 10 symbolic days, for the church of Smyrna, probably they went through a short period of intense persecution. 10 days is long enough to be very trying, and short enough to hope for the end.  

Jesus invites this church in Smyrna to believe that their suffering is limited. Just as Satan could not do anything to Job without God letting him, and no more. 

It’s not always 10 days. For that Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, who became the voice of the persecuted church during the communist era, he did 3 years in a dungeon, 14 years in prison, and he lived through another 43 years.   

They themselves would say that our sufferings and trials are measured by Christ. Never beyond our strength. That is why Jesus says, do not fear the sufferings that await you. Wurmbrand tells the story of his arrest. He had made a list of 366 times in the Bible where God says, do not be afraid (or the same idea). The day he was arrested was February 29!   

Jesus resurrects us through our afflictions

Every church is encouraged with the promise of a reward, the rewards are images of salvation, of eternal life, but for each church the image seems tailor-made. Here Jesus emphasizes the resurrection. v8: the one who was dead and came back to life. The reward for the faithfulness of this church is the crown of life.  And the last promise, He who overcomes will not have to suffer the second death. The Bible speaks of 2 deaths, the first one which is physical, which can reach us, but the second death, the eternal death: this one cannot touch those who are in Jesus. 

Let’s look at the image of the crown. Not a royal crown, but an athlete’s crown, in the era of laurel wreaths. I will give you the gold medal of life. Not the piece of metal, but all the honors, the acclaim that goes with it. Sitting on the throne with Jesus, standing on the podium with Jesus. It’s the opposite of slander, poverty, prison. This is our destiny.  

Salvation is not a reward for martyrdom, or faithfulness – that led to mistakes – salvation is a free gift, but included in this gift of salvation is perseverance and faithfulness to the end. 

Without the resurrection, Smyrna would be a very poor choice of church. So would the EBTM.