“Marks of the Church: Suffering for Christ” Revelation 2:8-11 October 19, 2008
SI: We’re studying the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3.
These are letters from Jesus Christ to seven churches in Asia minor,
written by the Apostle John as they were revealed to him.
And what is in these letters?
Jesus Christ’s thoughtful, loving, penetrating insights about each church.
In these letters he praises and encourages and rebukes and warns.
He calls them to be the churches they are meant to be—
to glorify God and be a light to the cities in which they exist.
Be who you are. Be who you are meant to be.
What would Jesus say to us? What things would he praise us for?
What would he warn us about, what would he rebuke us for?
What promises would he make in his letter to us to stir us up and encourage?
I don’t think we correspond exactly to any of these seven churches—
because every church, just like every Christian, is unique.
But somewhere in the middle of all of them we find ourselves and
will hear the word of Jesus spoken to us.
Let’s read his letter to the church of Smyrna.
INTRO: For the past two months, Christians in the Indian state of Orissa
have been under violent attack by Hindu mobs targeting them as Christians.
I read this week that 70,000 have fled their homes to refugee camps
where they are still threatened and receiving minimal protection from the police.
Thousands of Christian homes have been destroyed, hundreds of churches,
as well as Christian orphanages and schools have been burned.
There have been countless beatings and rapes and numerous murders.
Sometimes Christians are forced by these mobs to decide on the spot whether
to go through a Hindu conversion ritual or have houses burned, families abused.
Last month the New York Times had an article about these events.
It reported how some Christians, faced with the threat of death for themselves
and their families have chosen the Hindu ritual—but many others have not.
Interviewed a 25-year-old Christian woman, in a refugee camp, Ms. Nayak.
Ms. Nayak says that her husband, Bikram, was fatally wounded while she hid and that her house was destroyed. In Tiangia, Mr. Nayak’s motorcycle lay burned outside his badly damaged home. Mr. Nayak, 30, a government kerosene salesman, died from head wounds after being severely beaten by the mob, his wife said. Ms. Nayak said her faith remained unshaken. “My husband died for Christ,” she said. “I was born a Christian and I will die a Christian.”
Organizations that track religious persecution say that 150,000 Christians
a year are killed because they are Christians—mostly in Asia and Middle East.
This is a daily reality for many believers—being a hated minority,
subject to oppressive laws, denied rights as a citizen, harassed by police,
and sometimes facing an outbreak of hateful violence.
For many Christians, for many churches, in many parts of the world,
following Jesus means suffering for him in very painful ways.
This was what the church of Smyrna faced.
In the Roman empire, the worship of Caesar was very popular.
It was considered patriotic and loyal to take part in a public ritual
which involved burning a pinch of incense and saying “Caesar is Lord.”
This was no problem for the vast majority. It was just the accepted thing to do.
They believed it was good for unity of society, and it fit in with their polytheism.
The Jews were exempt. Roman law had long recognized their commitment to
their one God, and allowed them to substitute offering incense to Caesar,
with saying a prayer for him. The Jews accepted that.
In the early days of the church, Christians were considered a branch of Judaism.
So they got in under this exemption. But this is what happened.
As some Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah and left their synagogues, Jews angry.
In some cities, Jews started telling Roman authorities—these Christians aren’t Jews.
They’re not exempt. They slandered them. Said they were bad citizens.
It didn’t happen everywhere, but Smyrna was one city where it happened.
And it was especially bad in Smyrna, because Smyrna was a very patriotic city.
So, when these Christian citizens said, We will gladly pray for Caesar,
but we won’t burn incense to him and say Caesar is Lord,
when they said that, things started to go bad for them.
They lost their jobs. There was no EEOC.
You’re not a good citizen. You aren’t a loyal Roman. You can’t work here.
Or, you’re a tradesman, but we’ll deal with somebody else.
And so Christians began to suffer financially, they were despised.
That’s the background of this letter. That’s why Jesus said to them:
“I know your tribulation and your poverty and the slander you’ve faced
from those who call themselves Jews but are not.”
Then Jesus goes on to say: Now, don’t be afraid, but more is coming.
Some of you are going to be arrested and some of you are going to die.
He describes one of these violent outbreaks of intense persecution.
The big question that comes to mind when you read this letter is:
How does this speak to us? Jesus says these letters are for all the churches.
We can understand how churches in Orissa, India need this, or China or Iran,
but not in Alabama. We don’t suffer like the Smyrna Christians did—or do we?
Throughout Revelation the whole church is described as the company of martyrs.
The martyrs stand for all Christians, stand for the church as a whole.
Seems impossible when compare our experience in peaceful Cullman with that
of persecuted Christians in Asia and the Middle East.
But we are martyrs, and here’s why: All Christians are called to suffer for Christ.
No matter when or where we live, are to be people who suffer and die for Jesus.
What does that mean? What does it look like? How do we do it? Lots of questions. Let’s look at this passage under two headings.
1. Our calling to suffer for Christ
2. The strength to suffer for Christ
MP#1 Our calling to suffer for Christ
The Bible uses a number of word pictures to describe the life of faith.
Describes it as a walk, a race, a fight, farming, maturing from milk to meat.
Bible also uses the language of suffering to describe the Christian life.
It talks about dying daily.
And taking up your cross.
And being hated like the Master.
And sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
And about inheriting the kingdom through many afflictions.
These descriptions of Christian life are intended to remind us
that we live in a world of sin and death.
We live in a world that is opposed to the reign of Jesus Christ, opposed to God.
So everything good and holy and eternally valuable in our lives is going to come
at a price—and that price is suffering.
On the most personal level I know you’ve experienced this.
Let’s say you are fighting a sin in your life—
let’s just say it’s something internal, it’s bitterness or discontent or lust.
If you get serious and say—I will have a mind that honors Jesus.
I am going to take every thought captive.
It will be a struggle and you will suffer.
Or if you say, I’m going to raise my kids in the faith.
I’m going to raise the to walk with Christ and to fight sin and love people.
You are going to suffer—kids are going to push back, influence of world push,
your own laziness is going to push back.
Or if you say, I’m going to be a witness for Jesus in my extended family,
or in my school or in my workplace—there will probably be some opposition.
Everything good we do for Jesus is going to involve suffering for Jesus—
because it’s going to involve pushing back against the world, flesh, and devil.
Let’s talk about the devil, this passage does, and it’s important.
“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.”
This is a very encouraging verse, kind of pulls back the curtain for us.
Saying that in all we suffer, the devil is trying to harm us.
He’s trying to make God suspect in our eyes,
and use our suffering to convince us that God doesn’t love us.
But what does the Lord do with the devil’s attacks?
He takes the devil’s temptations and makes them a test.
The devil tempts. The Lord tests. 10 days, reminder God controls timing.
And tests are good because they show us the reality of our hearts.
They show what’s really in there and what our faith is made of.
That’s how God uses suffering—as a test.
Few weeks ago I stopped in this little Chinese grocery store near UAB.
In the back dozens of kinds of Ramen noodles from all over Asia—
from China and Thailand and Japan and India—I bought about 30 of them.
Eliza is a Ramen noodle fan and so we’ve been judging these noodles.
Some of the packages look very exciting but do you know what the real test is?
You have to put them in boiling water.
And only after that can you really say, this one is good.
The condition of our hearts is exposed most clearly in hot water—
in a bear market, not a bull market—that’s when reality surfaces.
These Christians in Smyrna just wanted to honor Jesus and be good citizens.
And for that some of them were thrown into prison.
And you can imagine how that might have made them question God’s goodness.
Is it really worth it to put myself and my children through this?
But they came through, and Jesus commends their faith.
So the Lord uses suffering as a test, even when devil wants to use it as temptation.
And the Lord also uses suffering as a way to make us strong.
Paul puts it this way:
“And we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces
perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope.”
Given the choice between comfort with shallow character
and suffering with great character, we would always choose comfort.
But that’s not what the Lord wants for us.
As he says in all the letters, he wants us to be conquerors, overcomers.
He wants us to have an inner beauty and strength so that we can
plant our feet and stand for what is right.
And so the Lord started to train this church,
started to make them strong through suffering.
Little by little he tested them, gave them grace to overcome.
What happened to the church in Smyrna?
Here’s the interesting thing, out of the suffering of this church came
one of the most inspiring Christians of the second century—Polycarp.
When Polycarp was a young man, he actually knew the Apostle John,
and studied under him. And Polycarp lived to age 86, and had a mind as sharp
as a tack. That’s impressive today, even more then when most people died in 40s.
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna. Bishop was simply the most senior pastor.
All the congregations in Smyrna, all the elders and deacons looked to him
for counsel. Man was living history, knew one of Apostles.
But what really made Polycarp such an inspiration was the way he died.
This is what happened. Smyrna had always been center for Caesar worship.
Christians had always been treated with contempt as second class citizens
because of their refusal to offer incense to Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord.”
There would be periodic outbreaks of violence.
When Polycarp was 86, he was caught up in one of these, Christians hid.
But he was eventually caught and brought before the Roman magistrate.
When word spread, huge hostile crowd gathered, began to chant for his death.
The proconsul sought to persuade Polycarp to deny Christ saying, “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” . . . Again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you will not repent.” But Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you wait? Bring on what you will.”
Picture it, 86 year old man, magistrate representing Rome, threatening to burn,
a crowd chanting for his death and he says, “Bring it on!”
I know the love of Jesus and I know my eternal destiny—bring it on!
Can you say that?
Can you say—I’m going to follow Jesus in my personal life and in my family and
marriage and school and workplace—and if suffering comes because of that—
Bring it on.
And whatever I suffer in this fallen world, whatever the devil uses to tempt me to
question God’s goodness—I’m going to respond, Bring it on.
That’s faith, that the character Lord wants. Kind of church he praises.
MP#2 The strength to suffer for Christ
Where does the strength come from?
Where did Christians in Smyrna get the strength, and Polycarp,
and Mr. and Mrs. Nayak and countless other believers?
Where do we get the strength to suffer for Christ?
Three sources of strength we see in this letter.
First, the love of Jesus.
Where is his love in this letter? It’s in those very first two words, “I know.”
I know your tribulation. I know your poverty. I know the slander.
Jesus is saying to these Christians I know what you’re going through.
This has not surprised me. I see it. I know every detail of your suffering.
And I’m working this out in your life for the best.
But it’s much deeper than that. Because right before Jesus says, “I know”
he identifies himself as the one who died. I died and I know.
And so when Jesus says I know, he also means—
I know experientially what you are suffering because I’ve suffered it to.
I know tribulation. I know poverty. I know slander.
When you are suffering you get strength from people who have suffered the
same thing. A person says, I know, I lost a loved one too.
I know, I had cancer too. I know, I had unbelieving parents too.
Being with someone who knows experientially is a huge source of strength.
And that’s what Jesus provides perfectly.
He fully knows the suffering of life in a fallen world.
There is no physical, emotional, mental anguish you have that he did not suffer.
But it’s even deeper—it’s not just that Jesus knows experientially your suffering.
He chose it. He chose to suffer and die for your salvation.
And it was love that moved him—love for Father and people given.
I am the good shepherd, good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the
Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
So the first place you get strength to suffer for Christ is in knowing his love for you.
Church that is learning to suffer has to focus on the cross.
That’s why we have communion every Sunday. Tangible reminder of his love.
Make the most of those things. Sing and remember.
Second source of strength in this letter is the promise of eternal life.
Jesus says, I died and rose for you, I know you, I know your suffering—
it’s going to get worse, some of you will be thrown in prison, some killed.
Then he strengthens them with a promise:
“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
And he repeats the promise in a negative way:
“The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
What’s the crown of life? It’s heaven. It’s eternal life.
It’s the life after this life in Christ’s eternal kingdom.
It’s the new earth.
It’s the lion lying down with the lamb.
It’s the New Jerusalem and the river of the water of life, and tree of life.
It’s the wedding feast of the Lamb and the great company of believers.
It’s that blessed country where there is no darkness,
and where every tear is wiped away and all things are made new.
What’s the second death? It’s hell. It’s the pit. It’s the abyss.
It’s the place of gloom and despair and pain—cut off forever from God’s grace.
And it cannot hurt believers.
Jesus is saying—when you suffer, remember that this life is not all there is!
There are homes and children and friends and plenty and rest on other side.
Hold on and you will eat and drink your fill.
Don’t give in to the devil’s temptation to doubt and deny the goodness of God.
Remember Jesus says that even in your poverty you are rich.
What keeps Christians in Orissa, India strong when a Hindu mob is breathing
down their necks and saying deny Christ or we’ll burn your house
and abuse your family and kill you?
It’s the things that have always kept Christians strong—
the love of Jesus and his great promises of eternal life.
You’ve got the very same sources of strength.
What’s breathing down your neck and saying give up.
This is too hard. This is too much. God has failed you?
What’s the challenge to live for Jesus that you are facing in marriage, work?
Hold on to promises. Jesus is preparing a crown of life.
Third source of strength is stories of faith.
There is a tremendous source of strength in the many stories of Christians
around the world and through the ages who have suffered and died for Christ.
This letter itself, written to the Smyrna church is a reminder of that.
Read about these Christians and can’t help but be humbled to the dust
and lifted up at the same time.
Because you say, look what they suffered for Jesus—and you compare to self,
and think about the things you complained about this week, and that humbles you.
But then you read about their joy and the victory God gave them,
realize they were just sinners saved by grace like you,
and that it’s God who is faithful and it lifts you.
As I was preparing for this sermon,
I got a little book off my shelf that I’ve read many times and read most of it again.
The title is “Tortured for Christ” by Richard Wurmbrand.
Richard was a Romanian pastor, arrested by Communists, tortured and imprisoned
for 14 years. He had no idea what had happened to his wife.
She had been arrested too and put in a terrible women’s prison.
Their nine year old son was turned out into the street.
After they were released, found each other, found their son—
their freedom was purchased and able to come to America.
Once free, Richard wrote “Tortured for Christ.” It’s not a well-written book.
It was written quickly, not edited well, and at times very emotional.
But every time I read this book, little amazing pictures stand out
that humble and lift at the same time. Just two:
In prison, given a bowl of dirty soup every day and one slice of bread a week.
Love for Jesus was so great, that every tenth week, these emaciated men would
tithe their slice of bread—give it to the weakest men in the cell.
That humbled me because just this week I was grumbling to myself and some
to Allison about tithing. Thinking about what I could buy if I didn’t.
But it also lifted me because I saw again the great honor or giving to God.
One more passage from his book that stood out to me:
“A total of 14 years in prison passed for me. During all that time I never saw a Bible or any other book. I had forgotten how to write. Because of the great hunger, doping and tortures, I had forgotten the Holy Scriptures. But on the day that I fulfilled 14 years, out of oblivion came into my mind the verse: “Jacob worked for Rachel 14 years and it seemed to him a little time because he loved her.” I saw my wife again. She had waited faithfully for me for 14 years.”
Humbled me because I thought of God’s precious gift, the Bible, how I neglect it,
and it lifted me to think of the way the Holy Spirit comes at just the right time
and gives us what we need to know.
Richard Wurmbrand is with the Lord now, but the mission he started—
Voice of the Martyrs is still going strong, they publish lots of good books,
and have a very moving website dedicated to reporting Christian persecution.\
I hope we never, in America, face this kind of persecution—
and by God’s grace we won’t.
But I do hope that Christ Covenant is a Smyrna church—
a church full of people who know how to suffer for Christ,
who are able to rejoice in the tests of faith
by relying on the love of Christ, and the hope of eternal life.
And I hope that our personal stories of suffering and faith will inspire
each other to die daily for Jesus.