Up Against It
Author: Terry Dashner, Sr. Pastor of Faith Fellowship Church in Broken Arrow, OK 74012
In 69 AD, a few years after Peter and Paul were martyred at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero and some thirty years before John was relegated to the isle of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, a baby was born in obscurity who will grow up to carry the torch of Christianity into the second century and die a martyr’s death. The man will become a beloved student of John and pastor the church in Smyrna.
Allow me to share some words about this devoted follower of Jesus Christ. His name is Polycarp and here is some of his story as told by the ancients. Soon after Polycarp had returned to Smyrna, a youth called Germanicus was martyred for the faith. It is said that Germanicus, while facing death in the arena “strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought heroically with the wild beasts. For, when the proconsul sought to persuade him, and urged him to take pity upon his age, he attracted the wild beast towards himself, and provoked it, being desirous to escape all the more quickly from an unrighteous and impious world.” But upon this the whole multitude, marveling at the nobility of mind displayed by the devout and godly race of Christians, cried out, Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be sought out! http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0102.htm
Polycarp was found in a farm nearby, neither provoking nor fleeing martyrdom, but calmly waiting. He invited his captors to eat a meal, (and asked if he might pray before being led away) while he prayed alone for an hour. At his interrogation, threats and promises did not shake his constancy. When ordered to execrate Christ, he answered: ‘For 86 years I have been his servant and he has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?…I am a Christian; if you wish to study the Christian doctrine, choose a day and you will hear it.’
When the crowd at the games in the amphitheatre were told that Polycarp had confessed he was a Christian, they shouted first for the lions and then for him to be burnt at the stake. He was bound; an official killed him with the sword; his body was then burnt. Christians collected his bones and buried them. They also wrote an account of his trial and martyrdom, which is the earliest authentic example of its kind. http://www.answers.com/topic/polycarp-1#ixzz1l3BrBTiN
I find it interesting that this character exemplified in Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, must have rubbed off on his parishioners because it is one among only two churches out of the seven that actually received no rebuke from Jesus. (The other church that received no rebuke from Jesus was the church of Philadelphia).
In this message I wish to share three truths about the church of Smyrna.
The first truth is this: The city of Smyrna was deeply loyal to the Roman Empire, which persecuted the church of Smyrna.
As early as 195 B.C. Smyrna foresaw the rising power of Rome and built a temple for pagan Roman worship. Smyrna was also considered a free city, one that knew the meaning of loyalty and fidelity to Rome unlike most cities. Cicero called it, “one of our most faithful and our most ancient allies.” It was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma and to the spirit of Rome. Her fidelity to Rome was famous in the ancient world. It was also a center of the imperial cult of Rome and emperor worship. It was a city given over to idolatry, and devoted to the glory of the Roman Empire. http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/smyrna-grace-under-fire-david-gauthier-sermon-on-book-of-revelation-37197.asp?page=2
There is much to learn just from the place of Smyrna. This city as far as culture and history is concerned was among the largest of the cities in the Mediterranean. It was a port city, which was beautiful in its appearance. The city was among the wealthiest of all the cities in Asia at this time, and the estimated population during the time of this letter was approaching 100,000 people.
The name Smyrna actually means myrrh. When you think about the Magi as they bore gifts to Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Myrrh is a perfume that was used in the embalming process. That is an attractive name for a city isn’t it? How would you like to live in a place called formaldehyde?
Myrrh was a perfume that gave off its fragrance when it was crushed. History tells us that the city of Smyrna endured earthquakes, attacks and raids, numerous oppressions, if it was a possibility that it could happen, they saw it. No matter how many times they were oppressed, they always seemed to rebound better than they were before economically. They fit their name well. Crushed but sweeter for it.
Idol worship was prevalent throughout Smyrna. Archeology has shown us several of the idol temples that were constructed during that day, and they were sights to behold. The expense and beauty was unbelievable.
Then there was this church. It was the church of Smyrna. It had the same name as the city in which it was founded. It endured the same sufferings as the city in which it existed. It suffered hardships just like everyone else. But, there was something different about this church. This was one of two churches found in these seven letters where there was no rebuke offered. Jesus had nothing bad to say about this church, but He did have a message for them. http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/the-church-at-smyrna-david-taylor-sermon-on-book-of-revelation-57897.asp?page=2
The second truth is this: The church of Smyrna knew persecution.
Several weeks ago I told you that American churches may never know the persecution of the early church, but we are, nonetheless, persecuted by trials, tribulations, and treacheries that come at us through internal and external pressures of the world and a world system that is controlled by Satan. The Bible says that all those who live in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
Although the church in America may never come under sentence of death, that does not mean that American Christians who serve as missionaries in foreign countries enjoy the freedoms granted by the Constitution of the United States. For example:
According to David Gauthier’s sermon entitled, “Smyrna—Grace under Fire” he states some disconcerting facts about persecutions around the world.
· In India, a 26-year-old Catholic nun was raped and mocked for her faith.
· The Myanmar military government attacked 22 villages of a tribe who are mostly Christians. Witnesses said the military beat and stabbed to death many people.
· A Coptic Orthodox priest in Egypt was shot. A Coptic bishop faces from eight years in prison to the death penalty on charges resulting from his reporting that 1,200 members of his diocese had been tortured in August and September.
· In Vietnam, Sept. 17, 1999 security police raided a house church, arresting and interrogating an evangelist and two others.
· In a largely Christian province of Sudan, 700 people die from starvation each day. 50,000 mostly Christian kids, have been sold into slavery for “the going rate” of $50.
Cuba - Only ninety miles off the Florida Straits lays an island that stands as one of the last champions of communism. In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power threatening Cubans with socialism or death. In the mid ‘60s, Castro labeled Catholics and Protestants “social scum” and forced both laypeople and clergy into labor camps under inhumane conditions. Cuba’s constitution was amended in 1992 to guarantee freedom of religion. But today, despite the government’s claims of religious freedom, Christians are imprisoned and churches are destroyed. In 1996, the Ministry of Justice ordered the closure of all house churches, estimated to number between 3,000 and 10,000. Thankfully, most churches did not comply and continue to influence Cuba for Christ.
Pakistan – Many Pakistani Christians have been falsely accused of breaking Law 295c (blaspheming Mohammed)—a crime punishable by death. Some have even been killed by mobs after being acquitted of such charges. In 1998 a proposal was made to officially adopt Muslim Shari law as the law of the land, which would bring about even more persecution. Despite hardships, Christians continue in love and perseverance, boldly sharing Christ.
China - China’s “strike-hard” policy, presented as a crackdown on criminals, is hardest on Christians, putting more believers in prison or under detention than in any other country. The confiscation of church property and Bibles continues—even Bibles officially printed by the government. Yet the Church grows: an estimated 3,000 Chinese come to Christ each day. China’s house church movement, which comprises approximately 90 percent of China’s Christians, endures unimaginable persecution, yet it stands on its commitment to preach the gospel no matter the cost. http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/smyrna-grace-under-fire-david-gauthier-sermon-on-book-of-revelation-37197.asp
· Smyrna under pressure
The Greek term translated tribulation is “thlipsis,” which means "pressure" in the literal sense. It is used, for example, of a man who was tortured to death by being slowly crushed by a great boulder, or of juice being pressed out of grapes.
This wasn’t about minor set-backs and irritations. This was crushing pressures put on the Christians that we are so unfamiliar with.
Jesus could say, “I know about your pressure” because He had personally experienced the worst of all pressures. His blood was pressed out of Him while He hung on a Roman cross. He bore the weight of the world’s sin upon His shoulders while He gruesomely died in the extreme pain of crucifixion.
"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:10-12)
· Smyrna in abject poverty
The Greek word (ptocheian) is the word for abject poverty. They were not just poor (penia). The people of this church had apparently been robbed of their material possessions in the process of their persecution.
The remarkable statement here is that Jesus says that though they were poor, they were actually rich!
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)
· They were rich positionally in Christ (Eph. 1:3), which of course, was by grace.
· They were also rich in that God had counted them worthy to suffer for Him (1 Pet. 3:14-17; 1:6; 4:13-14).
· They were rich in their spiritual lives because they were living close to God by faith.
Jesus could say, “I know about your poverty,” because He had experienced the greatest of poverties. He left the splendor of heaven to come to earth as a common baby. He grew up as one of us, without any of the benefits of glory to aid Him.
· Jesus: “Suffering Smyrna – blessed are you for walking in my footsteps”
· Smyrna was considered profane
William Barclay lists 6 points where early Christians were slandered:
1. The Lord’s Supper with its language about the body and blood of the Lord was twisted into slanderous charges of cannibalism.
2. The great emphasis on love was turned into the slander that the Christians were given over to lust and immorality.
3. When a person became a Christian and had to make hard choices about existing family relationships where paganism held sway, Christians were vulnerable to the slanderous accusation that they were breaking up homes.
4. With the emphasis on one God in a polytheistic culture, Christians were liable to the slanderous distortion that they were atheists. (The Romans didn’t care if Christians believed that Jesus was God. They had many “gods.” What galled them was that Christians believed in only one God.)
5. Since Jesus was Lord, Christians could not call Caesar lord, a position subjecting them to the slanderous allegation of political disloyalty.
6. Nero slandered the Christians with the charge of rioting to cover his burning of Rome.
Profaning the name of Jesus Christ and the Christian cause still continues incessantly. We can see it today all over the world.
· Smyrna is put in prison
The passage says that the church at Smyrna would have tribulation ten days.
· Some see this as referring to ten periods of severe persecution against the church between the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian.
· Many scholars believe that it merely symbolizes a relatively short time.
Whatever the case may be, it is short in comparison with the eternal blessings, which would be theirs when their days of trial were over. Jesus could say, “I know about imprisonment,” because He was arrested by 600 Roman guards in the middle of the night on the false accusation of insurrection, being betrayed by one of His own followers. Six phony “trials” through the night vainly attempted to make charges stick –Pilate saw to it that it did, setting Barabbas free instead of Jesus.
Christians were being put to death because they refused to burn incense to Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord.” They would not bend the knee to Caesar.
· Jesus: “Suffering Smyrna – blessed are you for walking in my footsteps”
The third truth is this: Smyrna was faithful to Jesus Christ.
Don’t be afraid of any of these things! (Literally – “Stop being afraid!”)
They had nothing really to fear in this persecution because it could not rob them of their priceless eternal blessings in Christ.
The Romans could rob the Christians of everything material – their homes, money, jobs, clothes, even life. But they could never touch their souls, which are in the hands of God!
"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28)
No matter what happens in this temporary life on earth. It is the things of eternity that really matter. Do not fear…
Be Faithful! (v. 10b)
(NIV is more accurately translated, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life)
The crown of life is eternal life itself, not an additional crown in addition to eternal life.
Other places in Scripture remind us of the crowns of glory we will receive when we cross that finish line.
· 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)
· Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Cor 9:25)
· For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (II Tim 4:6-8)
Jesus wanted to counsel the Smyrna Christians and us too, to be fearless and faithful, because in the end, WE WIN – THEY LOSE! http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/smyrna-grace-under-fire-david-gauthier-sermon-on-book-of-revelation-37197.asp?page=6
Conclusion: Stay the course. Keep the Faith. Your life stands secure in Jesus Christ no matter what the dangers or imminent persecutions.