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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Download Revelation Part 8

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.


Temple _Destruction

The words of Jesus in this passage are intended to help us stand steadfast in trouble, they are intended to give us hope. Even in the middle of great tribulation we can have hope, knowing that God is in charge, that he cares about us, and has not forgotten us. Above all, Jesus’ promise to return again and make all things right, is something to give us hope and peace. The fact that he is already been right about some of the things he prophesied should encourage us.

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Download Matthew Part 85

Matthew #85. Matthew 24:15-34

In the very first part of this chapter, Jesus told his disciples that the temple was going to be destroyed, while some of “this present generation” were still alive. Certainly, the apostle John lived to see it happen, and survived even twenty years longer, after the event.

I also mentioned the fact that in this section of Scripture Jesus appears to be jumbling together both the destruction of Jerusalem, and what we call “the end of the world.” When we get to our text for next time, it will become clear that Jesus, remaining in complete dependence upon the Father, was not told by the Father when the end of the world would come (24:36). However, it is also clear (from verse 34) that Jesus himself did know that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was not going to be at the same time as the end of the world. Though he talks about the details of the two things together, when we examine the text closely, it is obvious that he knows that they are two different sets of events.

In our passage today, it is very helpful to understand some in-depth background. Stick with me through that, and I think you’ll find greater understanding and encouragement from these scriptures.

Much of what we know of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 A.D. comes from the Jewish-Born man, Titus Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish General in Galilee, who fought against the Romans in the war of 66-73 A.D.. He was captured in 67 by the Romans, after a six-week siege of the town of Jotopata, where he led the resistance. He then ingratiated himself with the Romans by claiming that it was prophesied that Vespasian, the Roman general who was leading the war in Palestine, would become Emperor. He was made the slave of Vespasian, and later Vespasian’s son Titus, and served as a translator for the remainder of the war. Vespasian did, in fact, become Emperor as Josephus predicted, in the year 69, and he granted Josephus his freedom. Josephus continued to serve the Romans, taking on Vespasian’s family name, Flavius. He became a historian, writing a very large volume about the Jewish wars, and also another volume of ancient Jewish history. I will share more from Josephus’ writings in a little while.

For now, let’s turn to our text. All throughout this passage, Jesus is using ideas and images that come from the book of Daniel, chapters 9, 11, and 12. Daniel, living in the Persian Empire, prophesied about the future tribulations of the Jewish people. Daniel 12:1 says:

1At that time Michael the great prince who stands watch over your people will rise up. There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time. But at that time all your people who are found written in the book will escape. (Dan 12:1, HCSB)

This sounds a lot like what Jesus is saying in our passage today:

21For at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again! 22Unless those days were limited, no one would survive. But those days will be limited because of the elect. (Matt 24:21-22, HCSB)

In verse 15, Jesus says:

15“So when you see the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place” (let the reader understand), 16“then those in Judea must flee to the mountains! (Matt 24:15-16, HCSB)

The first time I read this, I was about thirteen years old, and I did not understand, and that bothered me. I think I comprehend a bit more today, so let me help you. Here’s what Daniel says in the prophecies to which Jesus is referring:

31His forces will rise up and desecrate the temple fortress. They will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up the abomination of desolation. (Dan 11:31, HCSB)

 27He will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and offering. And the abomination of desolation will be on a wing of the temple until the decreed destruction is poured out on the desolator.” (Dan 9:27, HCSB)

The Jewish people at the time of Jesus generally felt that Daniel’s prophecies had already been fulfilled. About 200 years prior, when the Jews were under Greek/Seleucid rule, the Greek leader Antiochus Epiphanes entered the temple and built a statue there. This desecrated the temple, making it unclean, and it was an abomination to all the Jewish people. It was the year 167 B.C. This led to the Maccabean rebellion, which led to a brief period of Jewish independence (See my first message on the book of Matthew for more background).

Jesus did not say, “Let the reader understand.” That was Matthew’s insertion. He wanted his readers to realize that Jesus was saying that Daniel’s prophecy had not yet been fulfilled.

The desecration of the temple in 167 B.C. may have been a partial fulfillment, but Matthew wants his readers to understand that something like those events was going to happen again. In fact, the Jewish war with the Romans of 66-73 A.D. looked a lot more like a fulfillment of Daniel than the events of 167 B.C., when Antiochus desecrated the temple.

In July of A.D. 70, the Roman general Titus set fire to the temple, slaughtered those within it, and had the Roman standards brought into the Most Holy Place. The Roman standards were poles with various decorations on them. The kind most likely brought into the temple sanctuary would have had a square flag, hanging from a crossbar near the top of the pole. Stitched on the flag would be the name of the unit and probably an image of a god, or perhaps even the Emperor (who was considered a god). It might also have had a carved image of the Roman Eagle at the top of the pole. These sorts of Roman standards were considered to be idolatrous by the Jews, and by bringing them into the Most Holy Place, Titus desecrated the temple, much as Antiochus Epiphanes did 237 years before him.

Therefore, to unwind these words of Jesus, and the parenthetical comment of Matthew, it is something like this: “When you see the Roman legions marching, carrying the standards of the Emperor, flee!” I think that the Jewish people at the time would have understood these things much more easily than us.

Later, Jesus says:

19Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! 20Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21For at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again! 22Unless those days were limited, no one would survive. But those days will be limited because of the elect. (Matt 24:19-22, HCSB)

You might think that Jesus has begun talking about the end of the world again, but I don’t think so. First, he encouraged his followers to pray that it wouldn’t happen in winter. That doesn’t make sense for the end of the world: the weather really won’t matter. But in 1st Century Israel, winter rains made most roads impassible with mud, and cold could kill those forced to camp outside with no shelter. Perhaps many people did pray, because, in fact, the worst part of the war was in spring, and the temple was not desecrated until July, and not fully destroyed until after that.

Historian Josephus, although somewhat familiar with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, was not a Christian; Christianity remained illegal in the Roman empire during his lifetime. Even so, the way he describes the war sounds very much like what Jesus predicted. Jesus said, “Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers!”

In a section about the siege engines used by the Romans against him in Jotopata, Josephus writes (warning: these words contain matter-of-fact graphic violence):

And any one may learn the force of the engines by what happened this very night; for as one of those that stood round about Josephus was near the wall, his head was carried away by such a stone, and his skull was flung as far as three furlongs. In the day time also, a woman with child had her belly so violently struck, as she was just come out of her house, that the infant was carried to the distance of half a furlong, so great was the force of that engine. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews. Book 3, chapter 7, paragraph 23).

Josephus describes many such terrible and heart-wrenching events. It was a brutal, horrific conflict. When Jerusalem was besieged, people became lawless, and many took food and other things from mothers and babies, and did violence to them. In fact, some historians have described the Jewish-Roman War as the worst massacre of ancient times. Jesus is not wrong to call it a “great tribulation.”

Josephus also describes the kinds of natural disturbances that Jesus mentions:

There broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 4, chapter 4, paragraph five)

Some of the language that Jesus uses in our passage today is probably exaggerated imagery (in other words, he did not mean everything literally), but given the writings of Josephus, I think it is worth noting that Jesus predicted a horrific, unbelievable tribulation, and that is exactly what happened.

In verses 23-30 it seems clear that Jesus turns to talking about the end of the world. In fact, he is warning his disciples not to confuse the coming turmoil in Israel with his own return at the end of the world. This is the second time in the same discussion that Jesus has warned us not to be taken in by false prophets and deceivers who claim that the end of the world has come, or who claim to be Jesus himself, returned for his people. He makes it clear that when he comes back again, no one can miss it:

27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matt 24:27, HCSB)

In verse 32, he may be returning to the discussion about the coming destruction of the nation of Israel. The fig tree is a useful analogy: just as we can tell the season from looking at the trees, those who hear him should be able to recognize the signs that these things are about to take place. For my part, I would think that as soon as I heard of the Jewish rebellion that led to the war, it would seem to me a sign that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed.

Verse 34 clearly refers back to the first part of the discussion, about the coming tribulation to the Jewish nation. This is clear both from what Jesus said about his own return (it will be unmistakable) and also what he says later on in verse 36 when he insists that the Father has not revealed the day or the hour to him. If the Father hasn’t told him when the end of the world is, Jesus certainly can’t claim to know it will happen before the present generation passes away. Therefore that comment must refer to the events of verses 15-22.  The short discussion from verse 32-33 is a warning not to be mistaken about the coming of Jesus.

Even though much of our passage today is concerned with events that have already occurred, I think we can learn a great deal from it, and be encouraged by it.

First, as I said last time, this is very good evidence that Jesus is reliable when he speaks prophetically. Since he also prophesied that he would return, and that we would recognize his return, I think we can bank on that, and look forward to it. Though there may be difficult times we have to endure, we can trust his promise to deliver us, and to bring us into his eternal kingdom.

A second thing gets my attention from this text. Jesus told his followers to pray that these events did not happen in winter. As it turns out, they did not happen in winter. I can’t help wondering if many Jesus-followers did, in fact pray, and so influenced the events to happen in summer. It encourages me to believe in the power of prayer.

Another thing I get from the text is this: If we find ourselves in the middle of trouble and tribulation, it isn’t wrong to try and get out of it. We may not be able to escape it; it may not be God’s will for us to escape it. Even so, it isn’t wrong to try (as long as it does not involve sinning).

The analogy of the fig tree is also helpful for me. As we will see next time, it is absolutely pointless to try and build a timeline for the end of the world. Even so, verses 32 and 33 show us that it is possible to recognize the “signs of the times.” In other words, we can look at history, and culture, and current events, and evaluate them with wisdom.

Overall, the words of Jesus here are not intended to scare us. They are intended to help us stand steadfast in trouble, they are intended to give us hope. Certainly, many Jesus-followers left Jerusalem before all this took place. They escaped this terrible tribulation. And even in the middle of great tribulation we can have hope, knowing that God is in charge, that he cares about us, and has not forgotten us. Above all, Jesus’ promise to return again and make all things right, is something to give us hope and peace. The fact that he is already been right about some of the things he prophesied should encourage us.

Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you about all of this right now.