Overcome persecution - Revelation 2:8-11

This is a sermon by Liam Hayward from the Riverside Church service on 11th February 2024.

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In the church family bible slot today we learnt the value of persevering to the end. We saw that Jesus says there is a prize for those who persist even under persecution. And that’s absolutely true and that makes it absolutely worth it. But I wonder if it’s something we too often only recognise in hindsight. Under persecution, if we are to overcome, we need words of counsel and words of comfort to help us, encourage us to persevere. And in our passage today Christ provides this for the church in Smyrna but not only for them but for all the church throughout history that comes under persecution. If you are feeling hard pressed this morning because of the stand you are taking for Christ then let me encourage you to listen closely to Christ’s kind words of comfort.

I wonder if you’ve tried to find comforting words, tried to counsel someone who is suffering. Not easy is it! We wonder if we might say the wrong thing. Well here’s my list of top worst things you can say in any situation

Someone who’s anxious – Don’t worry about it! – Sure just don’t worry, gee thanks I forgot to press the off switch for my anxious thoughts today but now you’ve reminded me they will all go away!!

Someone who’s down – Chin up! I think if you’re down in the dumps and someone says to you chin up, I’m more likely to want to chin them!

Someone who’s gone through a breakup (maybe a young person) – Plenty more fish in the sea! Yeah you’re right, there’s plenty more fish and right now they’re all swimming away from you!

I hope you avoid these unhelpful cliché’s when you counsel someone but forget our fallible words for a moment. Aren’t you far more interested to hear Christ’s words to a suffering church? I’m going to summarise them for you:

Jesus says:

  • I know what you’re going through.
  • It’s going to be alright.
  • It might sound quite basic to you but if this is really true, and we really believe it, this is exactly what we need to hear from Jesus to overcome persecution.

    But let’s delve into the passage more to understand the specifics.

     

    So let’s look at 3 things: the city, the situation, and our Saviour.

    The city

    What can we say about the city of Smyrna? Well this incredible place to live at this time. Absolutely beautiful. Wasn’t always that way though, had a rough start it was destroyed in 580BC but then rebuilt in 290 BC because it was such a strategically well placed city. You see it had a great harbour at the head of a well-protected gulf, which leant itself to being a great trade route. And as it was rebuilt it was designed to capture and magnify the natural beauty of its surroundings. So when it was rebuilt, the buildings were arranged around this scenic hill named the Pagos and it was done so in such a way that it looked like a crown. It earnt the city the nickname of being the “crown of Asia”, it even competed with Ephesus for the coveted title of being the first of Asia. Now that’s some magnificent names aren’t they?! Book your holidays now, let’s go there! But it didn’t just sound nice it was nice, it lived up to the hype!

    It's not like orchard Park is it, where you hear that and go oo that sounds nice but in reality it’s alright, it’s nothing to write home about, certainly no orchards there! Smyrna was a beautiful place, it was an affluent place. And it was also a secure, well respected place - at least to the powers that be at this time. You see this city was one of the first to embrace the imperial cult, the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. And so this city was seen as faithful ally of Rome, the greatest power on the earth at this time.

    The situation

    So that’s the city, what about the situation in Smyrna? Just cos it’s a nice place doesn’t make it a good place for everyone. Long story short, it was the pride of the pagans, but suffered by the saints.

    But Christ’s words to his suffering church is this, “I know.” I know exactly what your situation is, I know what you’re going through.

    V9 I know…

    … your afflictions. The word used here as afflictions or tribulation has connotations of being under great pressure. To be under a crushing weight or burden. And that crushing pressure was certainly felt by the church in Smyrna. They would have felt hard pressed by the society they lived in because of the prevailing ideology of this culture, the imperial cult. Now obviously a faithful Christian could not in good conscience engage in the worship of the emperor, and because practices of the imperial cult were so widespread the Christians refusal would have made them stick out quite noticeably. And here’s the thing, in such a city where the emperor was held in such high regard, to refuse to worship him would have been treated with great suspicion, like these Christians were a dangerous threat. This would have bred hostility, it would have segregated the Christians from much of society. This pressure is not the sort where because of your faith you feel a little uncomfortable or you might have to have an awkward conversation, no this was real weighty pressure to conform, because if you didn’t there would be real definite consequences.

     

    Friends there are many of our brothers and sisters around the world that know this kind of pressure, genuine persecution because they stand for Jesus. Just this week there’s been an election in Pakistan, a controversial one, the outcome of which will have direct consequences for our people there. They know pressure. But maybe you’re starting to feel the pressure as a believer too. Today in our country faithful Christian belief is becoming less and less palatable to wider society. It’s becoming less and less culturally acceptable to hold biblical viewpoints and advocate for godly values. Not only that but Christian views are no longer disregarded as irrelevant, but now are considered dangerous. Do you remember the good old days when people thought you were a bit kooky for being a Christian, now people are thinking you’re a threat. Are you beginning to feel the pressure?

     

    Well here’s the thing about pressure, it can be easily avoided actually. Just compromise. Just back down. Just keep quiet, maybe look the other way, or follow the crowd. Give in, and you’ll find things easier, you’ll alleviate a lot of that pressure. Bu the church in Smyrna were under the heavy weight of pressure because they were standing firm on the truth of the gospel. Friends where many in the western church have compromised to throw off pressure, Jesus says I know your afflictions - I know you’re under pressure for standing firm. Doesn’t that pressure encourage you that it is likely due to the fact you are standing up for the whole truth of God not a watered down, false gospel. Jesus knows your pressure.

    But not only that, he says I know…

    … your poverty. This isn’t simply being unable to afford that bigger house, or nicer car, being restricted on where you can go on holiday. This word means being destitute. These Christians in Smyrna literally have nothing. And in this city you can understand why. Sure it’s a wealthy city but it’s a city dominated by the imperial cult. This ideology didn’t just affect the social side of life, it would have affected the politics, and it would have affected the economy. Just look at what happened in Ephesus in Acts 19, the gospel threatened the idol worship there and what happened? They rioted! But why did they riot, because their trade was threatened, they were worried their wallets were going to get lighter! And similarly Christians in Smyrna would have been shut out or unable to profit from the dominant means of making money in this city. So much so that they had nothing.

    We don’t know this kind of poverty for Christ, we are so materially wealthy in comparison. And there’s nothing wrong in that, God has given us money to steward and its good that we do so wisely, generously for his glory. But it would be true to say that if we weren’t following Christ we would likely be better off financially. Fact is, being a Christian is not a good financial move! If you’ve come to Christianity recently and thought that following the LORD will lead to rich blessing, don’t expect that to be materially! Standing for Christ will hurt you financially. Now that might be because you are more open handed looking to use your wealth to benefit others. It might be because you lose your job or have to resign from your work to uphold God’s ways. It might mean you don’t advance in your career as fast as others or don’t profit as some of your colleagues do because you avoid common corrupt practice. It might mean your retirement affords less than what others can because your priorities are different. Standing for Christ will inevitably cause you material loss, but Christ knows, he knows what you miss out on to follow him. He knows what it’s like to go without.

    He then says to the church I know…

    … your pain.

    And for the church in Smyrna it comes in a variety of forms. Firstly, there’s the slander from the Jewish population. Now this isn’t just been badmouthed and butt of the jokes sort of stuff, this was an intentional maligning of the church’s reputation. And the reason was that the Jews thought that this would achieve two ends, increasing their standing with the Romans affording them a greater place in society, and as a bonus sticking it to the Christians who were converting Jewish followers.

    So they’d report on how these Christians refuse to worship the emperor. True. They’d say that these Christians, they don’t fit into wider society. Also true. And therefore they represent a serious threat to Rome. They are rebellious, seditious, wild and dangerous. Well all that’s false! And this slander would have undoubtedly led to great pain being heaped on the Christian people.

    Now do we not encounter the same today? Those Christians they believe in the Bible. True. They actually believe it’s the very word of God and so do what it says. Also true. And therefore they are a hateful, judgemental group of bigots. They are a group which inflicts harm on those who don’t conform to their dangerous beliefs. All false!

    We know this kind of slander don’t we? But it’s interesting that here Christ identifies who’s really behind this slander. The Jews think they are serving their own agenda but really it’s Satan that they are serving. That’s what’s meant by the phrase synagogue of Satan, they don’t realise it obviously but they are serving the designs of Satan. And the connection is made later in v10 when Jesus says the devil will put some of you in prison, maybe because of this slander.

    When you make a stand for Christ, you put a target on your back. Satan will set out to throw pain your way. For the church in Smyrna that resulted in slander, prison, some would even be put to death. Satan might cause you pain in different ways for following Christ. Have you considered that he might strain your relationships with your family, isolate you from unbelieving children, make it harder to see the grandkids? Maybe he’ll throw slander at you to ruin your reputation, make you a source of ridicule. Maybe the religious freedoms we currently enjoy will disappear. We don’t know. But Christ knows. He knows what pain we will experience for his name, in fact he knows first-hand what you’re going through. He knew pressure, he was tempted and yet did not sin. He knew poverty, laying aside his heavenly riches to live a humble human life. And he knew pain, acutely - physical, mental, the emotional pain of disappointment, isolation and betrayal. So he really knows what you’re going through.

    And he also knows you. He knows that if you are in him you will overcome persecution. Did you notice in v10 one of the results of their imprisonment? It will act as a test. Now we might be tempted in times of persecution to think that this is a test of God’s nature – we might see this as an opportunity for God to come through for us and prove himself to us. Have you considered that persecution might actually be a test of you, to prove whether under pressure, poverty and pain, you will still hold onto Christ, whether you will be proven genuine?

    These things will put the squeeze on you, and as they do what’s really in you will come out. I’m sure you’ve seen Pete describe us before like this but we’re like toothpaste, when we get squeezed that’s when we see what’s really on the inside. Some when squeezed will be shown for having a Christian veneer but hollow inside. But the believer when squeezed will produce faith. And this won’t be to prove yourself to Jesus, he already knows you, but it might just be proof for yourself for your encouragement, that you are really in him.

    Did you notice what Jesus doesn’t say to the church in Smyrna, he doesn’t criticise them. The only other church like it is the Philadelphian church. He has compassion for those that are his, those that are suffering for his name, and he knows they are his, he knows they will be proven true through the test of persecution.

    Take courage that whatever you suffer for Jesus, he knows what you’re going through and he knows you are his.

     

    Our Saviour.

    We’ve looked at the city, the situation, finally let’s turn our attention to our saviour. You see it’s all well and good having someone who genuinely knows what we’re going through, no small thing. But if we are truly going overcome persecution we want to know that eventually it’s going to be alright. And Jesus encourages the church in Smyrna that things are going to be better than ok. And this is more than just a nice platitude, he shows us enough of himself to assure the believer that they are going to get through this. Not because of what they are like, but because of who he is.

    Because of who Christ is, he gives these two instructions to the church. He says in v10 do not be afraid and be faithful. Don’t fear, be faithful. And here’s why:

    Jesus is the greater power. You see the church in Smyrna might be tempted to fear the powers that be in the world. The Roman empire and the Jewish people were flexing their muscles and the Christians were subject to them. But Jesus is the greater power. He says these are the words of the first and the last. Rome had a beginning and Rome had an end, their reign was limited. Yet Christ had no beginning and his rule is eternal. And if the extent of Rome’s power is limited, so is the suffering they can inflict. We needn’t fear because suffering is only for a season. We see that explicitly stated in this passage, they will suffer persecution for ten days. The number I think is less significant than the fact that it is limited. Persecution might push us to our limits, but only for a limited time. You may go through a season of suffering for Christ’s name, but it is a limited season, because all powers apart from Christ are limited. Let’s be frank, even if this season will encompass the entirety of your life, it will then pass, the pain will then be gone, never to be felt again. Our Christian hope is in the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. Smyrna might have fancied itself as the first of Asia, a resurrected city. But Smyrna’s time came and went, the Christian with Christ may suffer for a season, but know eternal peace afterwards. Jesus is the greater power.

    Jesus is the greater treasure. When Jesus says he knows the poverty of the church in Smyrna, he makes a very quick addition. I know your poverty… but you are rich. The church in Smyrna may feared on all they were missing out on, that they were without. But Jesus says that really, they are rich. Now how can he say that, after all these Christians were destitute? All they have is Jesus. But say that sentence again with the emphasis in the right place. All they have is Jesus, the greatest treasure. They have nothing materially, but in a very real sense they are abundantly rich. The people of Smyrna may have prospered greatly but money can’t buy what these Christians have. They have Jesus, the God of the universe and their saviour. He knows them and loves them. Friends do we calculate riches in the same way? Many of us because of our faith suffer material losses and with that comes FOMO - Fear of missing out. But that all depends on how you calculate your riches. If you simply measure wealth in material terms then sure Christians miss out. But to know Christ, do you not see it’s the world around you are missing out on what life is really all about. We were made to worship God and the people around us don’t know him, are they not the ones who are poor?

    Finally, Jesus has the greater crown. It’s no coincidence that Jesus says this to the church who live in Smyrna. The city might pride itself as being the crown of Asia, in many ways representing the best this life has to offer. If life was a game then the citizens of Smyrna would have been seen as the great winners, and the Christians therefore seen as losers. They must have feared being one of life’s losers, having a life that is pitiful and for some of them snuffed out early. Do you fear that, being one of life’s losers? Jesus says don’t fear, be faithful even to the point of death and I will give you life as your victors crown! You see if this life is all there is then Christians are losers. The apostle Paul reflects on this in his letter to the Corinthian church, he says, “if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Invest everything you have in the here and now, prolong your life as long as you can because this is all there is! Yet we who follow Christ, who died and came to life again, know that this life is not all there is. And Christ offers those who remain faithful the victors crown of life. The image Jesus uses here is of a crown wreath, like one won by a competitor in the local games. And those who endure persecution faithfully to the end, Jesus promises a victors crown. When this life is over, and it comes to us all, there will only be one set of winners - those given the crown of life by Christ. Everyone else will then suffer the second death, that is the eternal judgement of God. This is reserved for all those who reject God including our persecutors who do not repent. But Jesus says to the ones who are victorious, they will not be hurt at all by the second death.

    Jesus knows what you’re going through, and he guarantees that it’s going to be alright in the end. In fact it’s going to be glorious living with him forever.

    Words of comfort from Christ


    Intro: What not to say!


    Jesus has words of great comfort for those who suffer for his name.


    1) The City - 

    Pride of the pagans, suffering for the saints.


    2) The Situation - 

    Jesus says, I know…

    … your pressure 

    … your poverty

    … your pain


    3) Our Saviour -

    Yet… 

    … I am the greater power

    … I am the greater treasure

    … I have the greater crown

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