Be like the Smyrnans — faithful
By Res Spears
Message delivered October 14, 2018 at Liberty Spring Christian Church
At the risk of making my wife (and maybe my mother) cry this morning, I want to tell you about the dog that I had when we got married.
Inky was a border collie mix, and she was the smartest and most faithful dog I’ve ever had. For many years, she was my constant companion. I took her everywhere – to work, to visit friends, on long drives in the convertible. She would stand in the backseat of that Toyota Celica and bark at the yellow stripes on the road as we tooled along. It was almost as if she was telling me, “Hey, it’s OK to pass now! Let’s go!”
At work, she would lie down beside me at my desk, and when I would visit one of the newspapers I was managing at the time, she would make the rounds to say hello as soon as we entered the building.
She loved to run, and she would chase sticks or Frisbees until you were tired of throwing them.
Inky always knew when something was wrong, and she would lie down beside me in my darkest hours and just be there for me. When Annette and I got married, which, by the way was NOT one of those darkest hours, Inky loved Annette as if she had always known her.
As I tried this week to think of a good non-Biblical example of faithfulness that I could share, my mind kept coming back to Inky. She loved me simply because I was her man, even if I had scolded her for pooping in the house or eating something she shouldn’t have eaten.
Sometimes I think God gave us dogs so that we’d have a picture of pure love and faithfulness in our everyday lives. And yet His love and faithfulness toward us is so much greater. It’s an imperfect metaphor, to be sure, but I still think it’s a good one.
When Scripture talks about God being faithful to us, it means that He will never leave us or forsake us. It means that He will always keep His promises. It means that He will love us without fail.
Is that what it means for us to be faithful to Him? If it does, then we are all in trouble, because not one of us has been or can be faithful to Him in the same perfect way He has been and continues to be faithful to us.
And yet, faithfulness is exactly the call for those of us who follow Jesus.
Today, as we continue to look at Christ’s letters to the Church in the book of Revelation, we’ll see how he commended the church in Smyrna for its faithfulness and how he promised a reward for them if they remained faithful in the face of persecution. And we’ll examine just what it means to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
Turn with me to Rev. 2:8-11, and let’s dig into this passage a bit, and then we’ll hone in on faithfulness.
Now, let me tell you a little about the city of Smyrna to help you get an understanding of the context of this letter.
Smyrna, which is now known as Izbir, was located about 35 miles north of Ephesus, the now-abandoned city we talked about from the first part of this chapter. Both were located in what is now Turkey, and like Ephesus, Smyrna was an important port city.
It has 3,000 years of recorded history, and it is now the third-largest city in Turkey, with more than 3 million people. Contrast that with Ephesus, which no longer exists.
Remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about the leavening quality of a church in its community?
The church in Ephesus left its first love, and the whole community is gone; the church in Smyrna was faithful to Jesus in the midst of a culture that was utterly opposed to Him, and today there are still Christians proclaiming the name of Christ in that place.
But they were severely persecuted, and Christians there still are.
Speaking to John the Apostle through the Holy Spirit in this passage in Revelation, Jesus is quick to acknowledge the persecution the Smyrnans have experienced.
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.(Rev. 2:8-9 NASB)
Jesus Christ, He who is from everlasting to everlasting, first of all reminds the believers in Smyrna that He is completely in control. He was before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
There is nothing they will experience that He did not know in advance, and yet He still promises victory. He can only make that promise because He is ultimately in control.
Christ already has won the victory. He was dead and has come to life; therefore, He has beaten death itself, and that reminder would have been a great comfort to a people who were facing the very real prospect of death at the hands of their oppressors.
Jesus’ description of Himself as the First and the Last recalls the Lord’s use of that term in Isaiah 44:6-8. Take a look at that passage on your Scripture inserts and see how God used this description as an encouragement to His people:
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me. ‘Who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it; Yes, let him recount it to Me in order, From the time that I established the ancient nation. And let them declare to them the things that are coming And the events that are going to take place. ‘Do not tremble and do not be afraid;” (Isaiah 44:6-8a)
Do not tremble, and do be afraid. That’s the same message He has for them in verse 10 of our passage in Revelation, but before we get there, we should understand the tribulation that was before the church in Smyrna.
“I know your tribulation and your poverty,” Jesus says in verse 9. “I know your distress.” “I know your affliction.”
Christianity was illegal in Smyrna during the first century AD, so both Jews and pagans there were free to persecute those who followed Christ, and they could do so without fear of reprisals from the government.
Christians were having their property taken from them, and they were being left with nothing.
There are two words for poverty in the Greek New Testament. Penia describes a person who is so poor that each day’s wages go toward buying his daily bread. But the word here is ptocheia, which describes a level of poverty far worse.
These people were utterly destitute; they were dependent on the alms given by others. One commentator describes ptocheia as a word that cannot be pronounced without spitting, and he therefore calls the Christians of Smyrna “the spat-upon ones.”[i]
And yet Jesus says, “But you are rich!” These trials, this poverty, were nothing compared to the wealth these believers had in Christ, who had sacrificed His earthly life that they might have eternal life with Him. This was a reminder of what He had said in His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
As James puts it:
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?James 2:5
One thing that strikes me about this passage in Revelation is the matter-of-fact way that Jesus refers to the hardships facing His people in Smyrna. It was almost as if such things were to be expected. Which is, of course, exactly what Christ said to His followers, over and over again, like here, in the book of John:
“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”John 16:33
We have not been promised lives of comfort. In fact, our comfortable lives would seem to be the exception to the rule that we see in Scripture regarding followers of Christ. There is even a sanctifying work that takes place BECAUSE of our suffering in the name of Christ; He uses our suffering for Him to help purify our faith in Him.
But when we face trials for Christ, He promises us that He is there with us, that His grace will be sufficient to help us endure and that our faithfulness will be rewarded in Heaven. And He reminds us not to fear what lies ahead.
‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.Rev. 2:10
The believers in Smyrna are called to be faithful even to death. In fact, Jesus may well be telling them here that the tribulation He was warning them about would end in death.
The persecution is a testing. Digging into the Greek here, the testing is also seen to be a temptation. Hence, we see that part of the testing is the devil’s attempt to get believers to give in to temptation.
Satan is the great accuser. He is presented in the Book of Job as a lawyer arguing a case against Job before the Lord. He still operates as an accuser, attempting to prove man is unworthy of salvation. And we are. But God in His infinite grace, has provided the possibility of redemption from sin’s penalty through the sacrifice of His sinless Son.
The Greek word that we translate here as “devil” can mean false accuser or slanderer. Therefore, we see the devil presented in this passage as enemy, as tempter and as accuser. We are called to stand faithfully against all three aspects.
But the believer who remains faithful even when it means death will receive the trophy of victory. His crown is life.[ii]
Looking back at Smyrna, the Apostle John appointed a man named Polycarp to be the bishop of that church. He may have been the angel of the church at the time this letter was written. He was martyred in AD 168, 86 years after coming to Christ.
The Jews of Smyrna demanded that he be fed to the lions, and when that couldn’t happen, that he be burned alive; they even carried the logs for the fires.
It is said that when he was on trial and being ordered to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ, Polycarp said, “Fourscore and six years have I served the Lord, and He never wronged me; how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?”
So the trials that the believers of Smyrna were facing were even unto death. And so may be our own. But Jesus has promised to reward our faithfulness to Him.
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’Rev. 2:11
The “second death” here is a reference to the lake of fire, the ultimate destination for nonbelievers, those who fail to repent and accept Jesus as their savior before their physical death. For them, eternal life will be in the lake of fire, a place of everlasting suffering and separation from Jesus and His Father in heaven.
But for the overcomers, the victors in Christ over Satan’s schemes to keep them separated from God — for them, the promise is for eternal life in heaven.
Until then, we are to be salt and light to a lost world. Until then, we must proclaim the name of Jesus to those who do not know Him.
Interestingly, and in contrast to what we learned about Ephesus a couple of weeks ago, there are still Christians — and Christian churches — in Smyrna. But Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation, and the Christians there are still being persecuted.
A 2014 article I came across noted that Turkey’s 76 million people include about 120,000 Christians — and only 4,000 Protestants.
Even the families of Christian converts consider them traitors both to Islam and to Turkey.
“Converts from Islam, while not legally prosecuted, face social opposition, and are often forced to lead double lives to keep their faith hidden from family and community members. Christians with Muslim backgrounds are threatened with divorce and loss of inheritance rights upon conversion, and all Christians face employment discrimination.”[iii]
The persecution of Christians in Smyrna continues to this day.
Just this week, in fact, American pastor Andrew Brunson was released from prison in Turkey. He spent two years there on charges of “Christianization” and being “an agent of unconventional warfare.” Upon his release, he said this: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”[iv]
The persecution of Christians continues in Izmir even to this day.
But the Christian church remains there, because it has been faithful to Jesus Christ. And the name of Jesus is known there, because of Christians like Andrew Brunson, who loves Jesus and who loves the people whom Jesus loves.
Andrew Brunson gives us a hint of what it means to be faithful to Jesus Christ. His faithfulness is a sweet fragrance to the Lord.
Which leads me to one other interesting fact about Smyrna. The word means “bitter,” and it’s connected to the word “myrrh,” which was a pleasant perfume used in embalming bodies. You’ll recognize it as one of the gifts given by the wise men to the baby Jesus.
The persecution faced by the church in Smyrna was a bitter thing for them to experience. It is a bitter thing for us when we experience hardships and trials. But when we face those hard times with faithfulness – as the church in Smyrna did – then our faithfulness rises like a pleasant aroma to Jesus.[v]
So let’s take a quick look at this idea of faithfulness as we wrap things up today, and I’ll try to give it some shape for you.
King David is a great example of the faithfulness to which Jesus is calls the church.
God called David a man after His own heart. Now, God’s heart is steadfast and true. God’s heart is righteous and just.
But that didn’t describe David’s heart.
David stayed behind when his armies were out fighting the Ammonites, and while he was standing on his roof one evening, he saw a beautiful woman bathing nearby.
He had her brought to him and slept with her, and when he later found out she was pregnant, he realized her husband, Uriah, would figure out what had happened. So when David was unable to finagle a way to cover his sin, he had Uriah murdered in battle.
David broke half the 10 Commandments in one terrible string of selfish and sinful actions. So how could God call this man “a man after His own heart”?
We get a clue in the Psalm David wrote after the prophet Nathan exposed his sin to him.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation And sustain me with a willing spirit.Psalm 51:10-12
David fell headlong into sin. And this wasn’t the only time he did so. But every time he did, we see him broken and contrite about it. And every time he fell, he got back up and began pursuing God again.
He was GOING after God’s heart. David displayed faithfulness to God by pursuing God, even after he had committed terrible sin.
The people of the church in Smyrna were just like David, just like you and me — they were prone to sin. But they ever turned back to God in broken contrition; they got back up and start pursuing God again. That’s faithfulness.
It’s not even a faint shadow of the kind of faithfulness that God demonstrates to us. But in His mercy and grace, it is the kind of faithfulness that God rewards. When we are truly contrite and turn back to Him with all our hearts, God chooses to show us His chesed, his lovingkindness, and He counts it as faithfulness.
David also had a heart of hopefulness, a hopefulness that he found in the Lord. He recognized that all his hope was in God.
I cried out to You, O Lord; I said, “You are my refuge, My portion in the land of the living.”Psalm 142:5
In the midst of their persecution, the people of Smyrna had found a similar hope in Jesus. He was their portion, and He was reminding them that keeping their hope in Him, even as they were being imprisoned and killed in His name, would be a sign of their faithfulness.
There’s little chance that any of us will ever be imprisoned or killed for His name’s sake, but when we devote our lives to Jesus — when we declare to Him and to the world that He is our refuge, and He is our portion in this world — we demonstrate the same kind of faithfulness.
- When we continue to praise God, even after the doctor says the cancer is not responding to treatment, that’s faithfulness.
- When we walk away from the job where the boss is demanding that we falsify timesheets in order to bill more hours to a client, that’s faithfulness.
- When God hasn’t yet answered the prayers we’ve prayed for our lost adult children, and it seems like their time is running short — and yet we still pray and we still give Him praise, because we know His plan and His timing are perfect — that’s faithfulness.
- And when we find ourselves falling in that place we never should have been, doing that thing we never should have done and then get up and come to God with truly contrite hearts that are then directed even more to Him than ever – that’s faithfulness, too.
I may never be called to die for Jesus, but I can live for Him. I can live in such a way that the world sees I have given Him everything.
You can do that, too. Just be faithful — just be always GOING AFTER God’s heart. Just remain faithful in your present circumstances, whatever they might be.
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.James 1:12
[i] Roger Phillip Drews, Revelation! What Did the First Audience Hear? (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2012), 71.
[ii] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 69.
[v] John F. Walvoord, “Revelation,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 934.