suffering - woman against wall

Suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. We are never given an absolute promise that God will spare us. But we are given the wonderful promises that Jesus is with us in the midst of it, and that, when we follow him, no suffering is meaningless. Suffering on earth accomplishes something wonderful in eternity. Ultimately, because our Lord suffered and triumphed before us, we are people of hope.

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Revelation #8. Revelation 2:8-11

 The church in Smyrna at the end of the first century AD was facing tremendous persecution. I have mentioned the general persecution situation before. Domitian was the Roman Emperor at the time Revelation was written. Unlike some of his predecessors, Domitian took the title “Emperor and God, and insisted that everyone prove their loyalty by swearing an oath to the “genius of the Emperor,” and offer a pinch of incense at shrines dedicated to himself. Though Rome did not seek to especially persecute Christians, these requirements are impossible to fulfill for a true Christian, so the result was that many Christians were persecuted because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor. We know that by AD 116, the typical punishment for not worshiping the Emperor was death. It isn’t certain that such was the case at the time of Revelation, but at the very least they would be imprisoned, and since Jesus says “be faithful unto death,” it is likely that some of them were also executed.

Frequently the enemies of Christian people would rat them out to the authorities, hoping to gain the property owned by the Christians, or to eliminate them as business competition. In the case of Smyrna, the city addressed in this letter, Jewish people, angry at what they thought was the blasphemy of Christians, told the Roman authorities about the Christians who wouldn’t worship the Emperor. This was a very big deal in Smyrna, because it was actually the first city to build a temple (not just a shrine) to the Roman Emperor. Smyrna was entirely intolerant of people who didn’t worship the Emperor.

So, what does Jesus say to these believers who are being imprisoned and killed? What does he say about their poverty, and hardship? I want to make sure we understand this: He does not say, “Just have enough faith, and everything will work out well in this life.” He doesn’t say, “if you pray hard enough, you can change this.”

He starts with this: “I am the first and last, the one who was dead who came to life.” Christians in Smyrna were being imprisoned and killed. This is a very, very big deal. I remember when some missionary friends of ours had colleagues who were killed by Muslims on the Philippine island of Mindanao. It was shocking. It can shake you. Jesus is reminding them that he went through it before them, and he is now alive. He has already blazed this trail. On the other side of death, for Christians, is Jesus, who went through it and came out victorious.

Next, he says, “I know what you are going through. I know your affliction. I know your poverty.” Nothing has happened to them of which Jesus is unaware. He isn’t absent, off somewhere, wondering what every became of the church at Smyrna. No, he is watching. He is aware. He is with them.

There is something else. He says, “I know your poverty, yet you are rich.” This is in stark contrast to the church of Laodicea, which we will study later on. While he still walked the earth Jesus urged his followers to store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The Christians at Smyrna must have been doing that, and Jesus, speaking from heaven, is reminding them of the eternal fortune that that they have laid up for themselves. He can see it, their fortune is the same place where he is, and he is encouraging them that they have resources where it really matters, and they have wealth that can never fade or spoil, wealth that they will take into eternity. In spite of their temporary poverty on earth, they are rich! He is helping them to remain focused on the eternal goal, rather than the temporary trouble.

The church at Smyrna is one of only two churches which Jesus does not rebuke for anything. He is not displeased with them, and so in this letter we find no section of reprimand like there is for most of the other churches.

He also says this: “Don’t be afraid of what you are about the suffer.”

Suffering, hardship and affliction are a normal part of the Christian life. This is one of those terrifying truths in the Bible. The New Testament is chock-full of verses that make this clear. However, in every place where it warns of suffering, there are also promises of God’s presence, peace and joy in the middle of it. It almost always encourages us to not fear. Here are just a few out of many examples (I will italicize the parts about not fearing, and God’s presence in the middle of hardship, etc.):

1Now this is what the LORD says — the One who created you, Jacob, and the One who formed you, Israel — “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine. 2I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. You will not be scorched when you walk through the fire, and the flame will not burn you. (Isa 43:1-2, HCSB)

These verses make it clear that God’s people will pass through flame and flood.  But the Holy Spirit also says, “Do not fear,” and “I will be with you in the midst of these trials.” He says these trials will not overwhelm them. Jesus said this to his disciples:

I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

Paul writes to the Thessalonians:

And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you concerning your faith, so that no one will be shaken by these persecutions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you previously that we were going to suffer persecution, and as you know, it happened. (1 Thessalonians 3:2-4)

Peter writes:

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled (1 Peter  3:14)

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

This is only a small sampling of all the verses about suffering in the New Testament. Almost all such verses contain promises that if we endure suffering with steadfastness and faith, it will result in joy, blessings and glory later on. They all tells us that Jesus is with us in the middle of hardship and suffering. Jesus, speaking to the Christians at Smyrna, says the same thing:

“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.”

Jesus also makes it clear that there will be a limit to their suffering, in this case, “ten days.” This could be a literal ten days, but I suspect it is meant to be a word-picture, not a literal number of days. The number ten in the Book of Revelation is mentioned seven different times. Every other time it is mentioned, it appears to be a representation of the power of the devil, or of one his servants. Those other times the number ten appears, it certainly looks like it is a figurative number, not  a literal representation. So, my best guess for “ten days” in this passage is that it means that the Christians in Smyrna are going to feel like the devil has won, and that he is powerful and strong – but only for a limited amount of time, a time set by the Lord. When that time is up, the suffering will end.

Now, let’s be honest, it looks like for some of the Christians at Smyrna, the end of the suffering comes by death. But that is why Jesus promises that those who endure will have a crown of life. There is resurrection for those who remain faithful. Death robs the devil of his prey, if they are Christians. That is why Jesus says:

28Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28, HCSB)

When we trust Jesus, the devil’s power to hurt is ended by the death of our mortal bodies. But the promise of Jesus isn’t only about being raised from the dead: it is being raised from the dead with a crown. I think that means that when they are raised, they will receive honor and respect, like royalty does on earth. Their hardship is not wasted, or pointless. It means something. Their faithfulness accomplishes something.

Jesus also says that they will not be hurt by “the second death.” Revelation chapter 20 talks about this more extensively. It describes a scene when the dead are raised, and they have to stand before the judgement throne of God. Those who have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life, go on to eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth. Their names are in the book because they trusted Jesus. Those that did not surrender their lives to Jesus have a different fate:

13Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:13-15, HCSB)

Therefore, Jesus is promising the Christians at Smyrna that if they endure, their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Their resurrection will last for eternity; they don’t have to fear death, hell or the lake of fire.

So then, what does all this mean for us today?

Hard times might be coming. Perhaps it will be through persecution, perhaps through something else. I know Christian people who would rebuke me for saying that. They would say that I will bring the hard times upon myself by speaking it. However, that attitude is barely more than superstition, almost a belief in the magic of saying the correct words. I ask, however, whose words are more powerful: yours or God’s? In ancient times, people criticized the prophets who prophesied difficult times ahead, and sometimes even imprisoned them for saying it, but the prophets were right, and the “word of faith” superstitious people were wrong. John said it. Peter said it in his two letters. Paul said it. James said it. The author of Hebrews said it. Jesus said it: and that, my friends, covers the entire New Testament. People who are afraid of saying bad things in case they come true neglect all those verses in the New Testament that teach us that Jesus is with us in times of hardship and suffering.

There are some disturbing similarities between our culture, and that of 1st century  Roman Empire. The Emperors insisted on being worshiped, in part, in order to unify the culture. The Roman authorities did not care if the Christians worshipped Jesus Christ, as long as they also worshipped the Emperor. Rome wasn’t trying to reject the central teachings of Christianity – they just wanted to force everyone (including Christians) to go along with a certain cultural practice for the sake of unity, and to strengthen the government. It wasn’t that the culture hated Christians particularly. It was that, in the eyes of the rest of the culture, Christians wouldn’t play along. Christians were divisive, they were trouble-makers. By their refusal to worship the Emperor, they threatened the narrative created by the status quo.

This is why I am almost positive that unless something changes radically within the next generation or so, Christians will be persecuted in the United States. People already see us in the same way that the Romans viewed the first Christians. It isn’t that Western culture is out to destroy Christianity, but it sees Christians as divisive for not affirming the new status quo. If we refuse to toe the line, there could be trouble. Yet to affirm the status quo in our culture today is to contradict some of the teachings of the Bible.

For the most part, right now, the culture does not have the governmental power to persecute Christians for resisting. However, all of the same attitudes are in place. Even today, we can experience the emotional shame and humiliation of being on the losing side of the cultural war. And already, there are some jobs in which you can be fired for affirming some of the things the Bible teaches. As with the Christians at Smyrna, following Jesus can have real, negative financial consequences. Increasingly, we need to focus on the eternal perspective, and realize that there is more than money at stake.

As I consider all this, I have often wondered if there is anything I can do about it, or any way I can prepare for it. These words of Jesus set my mind at rest. What he wants from me is simply to trust him. He does not want us to be afraid of what the future holds, even when he is telling us that it holds persecutions.

It might seem for a while like the devil has won, like evil people have won. But take heart: don’t be afraid of suffering! Endure. You will find that God has placed a time limit upon the victory of evil. This is a theme repeated several times in Revelation.

Suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. We are never given an absolute promise that God will spare us. But we are given the wonderful promises that Jesus is with us in the midst of it, and that, when we follow him, no suffering is meaningless. Suffering on earth accomplishes something wonderful in eternity. Ultimately, because our Lord suffered and triumphed before us, we are people of hope.

So today, I encourage you to live not for the moment, but for eternity. There is a crown of life waiting for us. There is a resurrection that will not be taken away if we remain faithful. We have a loving Lord who has already suffered and died, and has opened the way for us into an eternal kingdom of joy.

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