This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Revelation 2:8-11
Purpose of the Message: To show that Christ knows and understands our afflictions, and that the afflictions and pressures of life are in fact a normal Christian way of life.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Art Verboon, Edmonton, Alberta
He stepped forward, and was asked by the governor if he really was Polycarp. When he said yes, the governor urged him to deny the charge. "Respect your years! Swear by Caesar's fortune; change your attitude and your mind," he begged him. The governor pressed him further: "Swear, and I will set you free: curse, denounce Christ and you’re a free man."
"For eighty-six years," replied Polycarp, "I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong: how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?"
"I have wild beasts ready to go," said the governor. "I shall throw you to them, if you don't change your attitude."
"Call them," replied the old man ... "Call them! Bring them in!"
"If you make light of the beasts," retorted the governor, "I'll have you destroyed by fire, unless you change your mind."
Polycarp answered: "The fire you threaten burns for a short time and is soon extinguished: there is a fire you know nothing about—the fire of the judgment and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly. But why do you hesitate? Do what you want with me."
The governor was amazed, and sent the town crier to stand in the middle of the arena and announce three times: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." Then a shout went up from every person there that Polycarp must be burnt alive. The rest followed in less time than it takes to describe: the crowds rushed to collect logs and branches. When the pyre was ready, Polycarp prayed. When he had offered up the Amen and completed his prayer, the men in charge lit the fire, and a great flame shot up. (Taken from: Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, pg 81)
Why retell this story? Polycarp was a member and the bishop of the church of Smyrna. This is the second church addressed in the seven letters that we read about in Revelation.
Old Polycarp. Eighty-six years old and to have it all end that way. It almost makes you angry. I don’t mean it makes you angry that the government had to pick on an eighty-six year old man, but it kind of makes you angry that after eighty-six years, you would have thought Polycarp would have learned by now when to say something and when to keep quiet. Why provoke and agitate the leaders like he did? You can almost tell from his fiery outspoken words that he was a trouble maker. It all seemed so unnecessary, this burning at the stake and all.
That’s what we like to think. We think that we have a choice in regards to whether we meet up with hatred and persecution, or not. We tend to believe that if we act nice in our affairs with the world, show respect, be good persons, treat our neighbours as ourselves and all of that stuff, life will be a bed of roses as far as persecution goes. We honestly believe that we can go through our lives without ever once having to face that "moment of truth" where we must choose between Christ and our lives…
Maybe we’re grandstanding and exaggerating here? Christ or our lives? You’re right, that only happens in a different time and a different place and to different people. Not us. God has placed us in the 21st Century, in (insert your country) in (insert your city) of all places. He has blessed us in such a way that when it comes to faith matters we can have our cake and eat it too. In fact, it’s all a piece of cake being a Christian in (insert your country). No worries, no tests, no sacrifices, nothing has to be put on the line. Thank you Lord. This must be the way you like it. And for that matter, the way we like it too.
Someone once said, "A person really believes NOT what he recites in his creeds and confessions, but only the things he is ready to die for." But of course, that’s grandstanding and exaggerating too, isn’t it? Maybe our "moments of truth" are a little more ordinary. Like, where we put our money, and what kind of a job we take, or the kind of people we hang around with.
Maybe we shouldn’t have begun by setting the bar so high at first with all this talk of persecution. After all, life is not all about persecution and I’m sure it wasn’t for the church of Smyrna either, or was it?
One thing you need to know about the Christians in Smyrna is that they were discriminated against. They were not paid well, they were pretty much despised, so in that sense they were a people that were not prosperous, not respected, and not very safe. Each day they had to live by faith. Yes, each day they had to live by faith.
In Smyrna there was a large Jewish community, and there was a lot of tension between the Jewish believers and the Christian believers, most of who used to be Jewish. If we were to go back to the early 1990’s and the tension that was there between those who left the CRC and those who remained and multiply it maybe by five, then you’re probably close to where things were at between Jews and these new Christians who left the Jewish faith. There were lots of hard feelings.
The Jews in Smyrna were using their influence and their presence to hurt the Christians. They did that best by pointing out to the Roman authorities that this group of people, this church, was not a Jewish congregation. They worked hard to make it very clear who was a "real" Jew and who was not. And that was very important, because Jewish people had privileges in the Roman Empire. They had a special place because years before they had taken the Roman side during a rebellion. So the Jews were allowed to keep their own religion and worship their own way. And they made it clear that the Christians did not deserve these privileges, and that they should be forced to do what everyone else in society was doing.
This could potentially be a big problem for the Christians, because everyone else was to some extent engaged in the worship of the emperor. At least, as was demanded of Polycarp, they needed to "swear by Caesar’s fortune." You see, the Romans had a law that stated that the emperor was a god. Now this wasn’t such a big deal for many folk since it mainly involved simply saying phrases about the divine emperor and putting them on your legal contracts, or paying taxes that went to the emperor’s cult fund, or beginning meetings by pronouncing his name. These were mostly little things a person could do and not really believe. But if you didn’t do them, that would be another story, because then you would die.
So, this text here in the second chapter of Revelation, this letter describing the situation in Smyrna is a difficult one because it describes the real life and death struggle of a church that wanted to face those "moments of truth." Maybe "wanted" is not the right word. Maybe instead of "wanted," this was a church that understood that when it faced a "moment of truth" it did not shirk from facing such moments. And when they faced such moments, all this innocent stuff about the emperor being god, (although no one really believed it, not even the Romans themselves) suddenly wasn’t so innocent anymore. There was no politically correct way of getting around it anymore. For the church of Smyrna, behind it all was the question: "Is it Christ, or is it my life?
There was much suffering going on for this early church. A lot of blood shed, and it was no coincidence that Christ, the one who stood in the middle of the seven lampstands, the seven churches, when identifying himself with this particular local church, identified himself as the one who is, "the first and the last, the one who died and came to life again…"
In this life and death struggle in which they found themselves, what better news to hear than to know the One who had conquered death through his resurrection from the dead, was alive and well and was there ready to help them. The One who holds the keys of death and Hades even today is the One who was right there with them. Talk about encouraging.
And talking about encouraging, this Jesus was not simply talking generic language to them, but was speaking specifically to them. He knew where they lived. When he presented himself in this particular way, namely as the "The first and the last, who died and came to life again," these Smyrnans immediately sensed that Jesus knew all about them and what life there in Smyrna was all about. You need to know that Smyrna was often called the "first city of Asia." On their coins were stamped the words "First City of Asia in Size and Beauty."
First. The city loved the word "first." It was sort of their calling card. Just as New Yorkers love to be recognized as tough! Just as the city of Edmonton , for example loves to be recognized as the city of champions! (Reader, you could add a local illustration here.) So too, the city of Smyrna loved to be recognized as the "first city of Asia."
But there is another piece of historical information about Smyrna that ties in with this. Smyrna had gone through a number of once-dead-but-come-back-to-life- experiences. The city had been destroyed in 580 BC, but rebuilt in 290 BC, and the city of Smyrna was proud of its "resurrection." "The first and the last, who died and came to life again." And Jesus says, "I know…"
And for the local Christians in Symrna, because of the words chosen by Jesus, they instinctively know that he knows what they're going through. He's speaking to them directly. He says "I know your afflictions." The Greek word used here is thlipsis. It’s a strong word and essentially means, "pressure, crushing pressure." The followers are living under crushing pressure.
Imagine how you would feel if on a given Sunday your elder would read a letter that had come from Jesus himself in which he addressed you as (insert name of church) in the city of (insert name of city here) that read, "I know what you people are going through and this is what I am going to do about it."
However, now back to Smyrna. Relief must have washed over their faces. Finally!!! No more discrimination! No more eking out a living, let alone paying for the church! No more persecution! Jesus is going to do something about it because he knows our afflictions! Oh, to have been there as the scroll was slowly unwound and the words read!!! That must have been one of those wonderfully delightful "moments of truth." The kind that make your hair stand on end.
Anyways, we're getting ahead of ourselves. What does the One who knows their 'thlipsis,' their crushing pressure, say to them? This is what he says, "I know your pressure…but do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer…be faithful even to the point of death…" That’s essentially what he says. Read it for yourself. Jesus is saying that it is going to get worse before it gets better.
Why no promise to lift the pressure? Why no promise to insulate them from more afflictions? Because in the nature of things that is not possible. Why? Well, let's ask another question: What did these Christians in Smyrna do to bring on this crushing pressure? Was Jesus angry at them for something wrong they did? No. And that is precisely the point.
Notice that in this the second of the seven letters in Revelation to the seven local churches, there is not one word of criticism or correction as in the other letters. In the other letters we hear Jesus say, "I have this against you and that against you…I have a problem with what you are doing." But not with this church. There is no call for repentance or anything. This church is doing everything right.
They are totally sold out to the kingdom of God, and as a result they were coming under thlipsis, under crushing pressure.
Sometimes we are under pressure because of the choices we make. Careless, wrong, even ungodly choices. But that’s not what this text is about. Sometimes we are under pressure precisely because we are making wise, right and godly choices. Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12, "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." This is the kind we’re talking about.
Thomas Torrance in Scotland wrote, "A church cannot be a true church without causing trouble." Not that a church sets out to cause trouble. It’s just that in seeking to be a true church, a church true to Jesus Christ, it will make waves and will find itself in afflictions of one kind or another…"
It’s really a sobering thought if you think about it, isn’t it? This whole letter to Smyrna is in fact sobering.
I guess it shouldn't have surprised us that that loud mouthed troublemaker Polycarp who was burned at the stake was raised in Smyrna! Smyrna, a church Jesus was very proud of.
Prayer of Response:
Our Father in heaven, the church of Smyrna seems so far from us. It looks so different than us, we confess. We’re peacemakers, not troublemakers. We’re lovers, not fighters. We’re often too afraid to stand up for what we believe and for what is right and good.
So, Lord, help us to be different, and stand out from the world. Help us be faithful and courageous when it comes time to do battle against the forces of evil, because we know that when we do so, we will get help from none other than your Son Jesus Christ. The One who fights for us. The One who overcomes. The one who will bring us even through death. He will do battle for us because indeed the battle ultimately belongs to the Lord. Thank you. In his name we pray. Amen.
Order of Worship
Pre-service songs (optional)
The Lord Calls Us to Worship
Welcome and Announcements
Opening Prayer (optional, silent/personal)
Call to Worship Psalm 91:1,2
*Opening Hymn #174 Sing a New Song to the Lord God
*Declaration of Trust & God's Greeting
"Our Father in Heaven, as we begin this service, we pray that the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit may abide with us all. We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen."
*Hymn of Praise #473 To God Be The Glory
The Lord Reconciles Us to Himself
God’s Rule for Holy Living 1 John 2:15-17
Prayer of Confession
Hymn of Confession #545 Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession (i.e. congregational prayer)
*Hymn #544 1,2 Lead Me, Guide Me
The Lord Instructs Us from His Word
Scripture Reading: Revelation 2:8-11
Sermon: "If You Think New Yorkers Are Tough, You Haven’t Been To Smyrna"
Prayer of Application (see after sermon)
*Hymn of Response #575 Christian Do You Struggle
The Lord Sends Us to Serve
*The Lord’s Commission (i.e. a Closing Thought. see below)
"Father in heaven, we pray that you will bless us and keep us. May your face shine upon us and be gracious, may you turn your face towards us, and give us peace. Amen."
*Closing Doxology #633 2x He Is Lord
Closing Thought: In this short passage we looked at this morning, Jesus gives us more than a warning or a call to persevere in the middle of trying times. No, Jesus gives us a promise. "The one who is the first and the last, the one who died, is now alive!" And he promises this, "He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the 2nd death."
What this means is, though we all die once, and though some of us may have to give up our lives for Jesus, ultimately we will never die. The 2nd death, eternal condemnation, eternal destruction, away from the presence of God does not affect us. Those who remain faithful unto the first death do not die the 2nd. They enter into eternal life.
As one person put it, "We are all going to die. We may as well die for a good reason."