7 Letters to 7 Churches in Revelation: Live Fearlessly!
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Revelation 2:8-11 ~ Sunday, September 15, 2019
What do you fear? Whether you are young or old, single or married, live at home with your parents or just moved out, we all have fears. The most common fears include: fear of being socially unacceptable; a fear of heights; a fear of bugs, snakes or spiders; a fear of closed spaces; a fear of flying; a fear of the dark (or what might be hiding in the shadows); fear of getting a disease; fear of blood; fear of violent weather and a fear of dying. Do those things cause you fear?
How about this: What fears do you experience as a direct result of being a Christ-following, bible-practicing believer in this world? According to Open Doors USA, a group that tracks and reports on the mistreatment of Christians around the globe, persecution against Christianity worldwide is intensifying, with Christian women being most vulnerable. As American Christians we may not be aware of, much less fully realize that there is an intense ongoing world-wide discrimination against Christians due to their faith. Whether we recognize it or not, according to Open Doors USA here’s what’s happening right now: 1 in 9 Christians face high levels of persecution and 11 Christians are murdered every day because of their faith worldwide! Maybe you aren’t afraid of being killed for being a Christian, but what do you fear having to face for being a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ today?
To be totally transparent with you, there is part of me that feels like suffering because I’m a Christian seems all wrong. If, as Christianity teaches, God loves me in Christ and through Christ I love God, and God is all-powerful, as I put that all together, it seems like I could expect that such a loving God would shield me from this kind of pain and suffering. Sort of a benefit of being part of his club, God provides me his protection against persecution. Yet, what we hear in Jesus’ words in Revelation chapter 2 to the church at Smyrna is that Christians can expect to experience the kinds of suffering everyone faces that come from living in a broken world. No preferential treatment there. On top of that, Christians can also expect an extra kind of suffering that non-Christian people don’t have to face, namely, persecution for living out their Christian faith in this don’t-really-need-or-welcome-Christ-in-my-life world. Suffering from persecution will characterize the life of the Church in this world is a key message of the letter to the congregation at Smyrna.
Though thoughts of persecution might provoke fear, the central message of this letter is one that inspires greater faith to face and overcome such fears. The Christians at Smyrna serve as an example of what that looks like!
The church at Smyrna was poor, troubled and deprived. Though the city as a whole was very prosperous economically, the Christians in Smyrna either didn’t share in that wealth or what they did have was forcefully taken away from them because of their faith in Jesus. The city was very tolerant toward various religions, boasting at least five elaborate temples dedicated to different false gods and goddesses. Yet the religious and civic leaders of the city must have felt threatened by this Christian congregation because they brought pressure and stirred up persecution to try and shut this ministry down. Perhaps they succeeded in getting the congregation branded as an enemy of the state because the congregational members would not bow down to the Roman Emperor and worship him as a god. Maybe others in the city wouldn’t do business with the congregation’s members or hire them as employees because of their beliefs. Maybe the members of the congregation were targeted for robberies or subject to search and seizures of their property and possessions because they respectfully declined to participate in those festivals which honored the various gods of their city. Whatever the specifics were, this we know for sure: There was not one bit of social prestige or economic advantage in being numbered among the Christians in Smyrna. Yet, even in the face of all of these adversities and temptations to cover up their Christian identity out of fear, the Christians at Smyrna stood firm in their faith in Christ!
It is hard for us even to begin to imagine what life must have really been like for those Christians. Though persecution toward Christians and Christianity in America is on the rise at this point in time, the realities that the Christians at Smyrna faced still feel pretty foreign to us. We’re blessed to live in a country where government recognizes and protects the free practice of religion according to one’s own conscience rather than being compelled to worship approved deities by governmental edict. As American Christians we really don’t worry all that much about governmental interference in the exercise of our faith. Though we need to be vigilant, I don’t believe we have a high degree of concern that the American government is actively seeking ways to persecute us because of our Christian beliefs.
This is a great blessing, though it also raises a different sort of question: Since Jesus promised that his followers would face persecution as they practice their Christian faith, why don’t we feel greater persecution or repercussions for our faith? Consider this: To the minds of most Americans, ease, comfort, affluence, and acceptance are interpreted as signs of God’s favor upon someone. Perhaps we enjoy those things in our lives as blessings from God. But the situation at the church in Smyrna also compels us to ask ourselves: Do we have these things because we’ve been so faithful to Jesus? Or does our society reward us with these things because we’ve been willing to keep our faith mostly to ourselves? If you’re challenged with the choice of remaining faithful to Christ or keeping a business contract, or making certain social connections, or maintaining peace in the family or your standing in society; are you willing to lose material things, your reputation, your family, your life, rather than deny Christ? Or do you fear such persecution? God can certainly spare us from persecution as we faithfully exercise our faith. But it is also good for us to examine our own lives and ask: Is it possible that perhaps the reason we don’t face much, if any, persecution from the people around us is because the way we practice our faith doesn’t make much, if any, impact on them? Think about it: persecution is actually easy to escape! Here’s how: Don’t live in godly ways. Cave to your fears of what the world might take from you if you live out your faith and instead hobnob with the world and blend your beliefs with what is politically correct and socially advantageous. Cower in fear of taking a biblical stand or demonstrating your distinctiveness as a believer, and you won’t suffer persecution. Have you ever instead of standing strong in faith in the face of persecution, folded up in fear instead?
I remember in science class learning about opposites and how some substances just cannot mix with each other. Have you ever experienced the oil and water experiment —you know the one where you put water in a glass and then put oil in the same glass only to see that the oil stays on the top? This is because oil and water do not mix, and because they don’t mix, the oil stays separate from the water.
Think of that experiment and consider this insight shared by Christian pastor, Dr. Michael Youssef: “The relationship between faith and fear is like a seesaw. When one is up, the other is down. So when we allow fear to rise, our faith will decline. But the opposite is true as well. When we increase our faith, our fear will fall.”
In the oil and water experiment the glass represents our hearts. When we face persecution it is like oil being poured into our hearts, leaving less room for water. Suffering causes us to fill up with fear and feel a poverty of faith and confidence in the Lord. Did you notice how Jesus counteracts this? When His church suffers, Jesus assures: “I know...I know your tribulation.” This is more than simple awareness. It’s more than empathy too. Jesus pushes back with this fear-chasing, faith-building truth, “Yet you are rich.” Paul reminds us of just how rich we are in 2 Corinthians 8: “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 by his poverty might become rich” (v. 9). When we as a church family and as individuals, when we suffer, when we struggle, Jesus counteracts the oil of fear that is crowding our hearts by pouring in the water of his promises to push out our fears, by filling us up with the powerful truth that Jesus supplies us with all that we need through his powerful promises.
Remember: the risen Christ is one who has experienced the worst that life could do to Him. Greater still: The risen Christ has conquered the worst that life can do. Literally, the Greek says, “He came to be dead and began to live or came to life again,” an obvious reference to Christ’s cross and resurrection. He was condemned and crucified for the truth he claimed and faithfully upheld. What is that truth? That He is “the first and the last.” He stood firmly behind that claim, showing that He is true God come in human flesh. He truly is the One who created all life and the One for whom all life exists. What that means is this: in Him we find the meaning of our existence, peace of forgiveness for the ways we’ve failed in our faithfulness to Him, and even discovering purpose for whatever pain we face for being faithful to Him!
But there is even more. Jesus doesn’t just give us a faith worth give our lives to. Faith in him is a faith so valuable it’s even worth dying for! “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer… Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (2:10). Yes even if your earthly life is threatened because of your faith, it is worth it to be faithful even to the point of dying! Jesus tells us why: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death." The “second death” are the fires of Hell. Though it can be scary to think of giving up our earthly lives for Jesus, this is Christ’s fear-chasing, faith-building promise: “Though the first death may ‘hurt’ you briefly, the second not at all!”
Among the first readers of this letter was a young man, Polycarp. He lived to become a very old man, the supervising pastor of the church in Smyrna. 70 years after this letter was written, he was called upon by Roman authorities to deny Christ and save his earthly life. He refused, crying out, "86 years have I served him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?" Polycarp died, burned at the stake, in a big sports stadium in Smyrna. It's hard to imagine a more agonizing, painful physical death. But he died knowing that he would not be hurt at all by the fires of hell. Commenting on the impact of his death, one writer reflects: “The Faithfulness of Polycarp to the end seems to have characterized this church in Smyrna in its entire testimony and resulted in this church’s continuous faithful witness for God after many others of the early churches had long lost theirs … The purifying fires of affliction caused the lamp of testimony to burn all the more brilliantly.”
What an amazing example of faith greater than fear, the kind of faith that inspires us to stand firm too! Brothers and sisters, “Do not fear!” “Be faithful.” For your Savior is eager to place the crown of eternal life on your head too! Amen.