Now if you would please take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands and turn with me in it to Revelation chapter 2, Revelation 2. We’ll be reading at verse 8. If you’re using a church Bible, you’ll find it on page 1028. We began last Lord’s Day Evening to look at the messages that Jesus gave to John for each of the seven churches to whom the book of Revelation was addressed. These are real, but they are representative congregations or groups of congregations in strategic centers in Asia Minor and each letter focuses on one specific issue in each church, and together, all seven provide a pretty comprehensive view of the challenges, the perennial challenges, that face the whole church of Jesus Christ in every age. Last time we were thinking about the message of the letter to the church in Ephesus. And the major concern there, you will remember, was for a church in the throes of backsliding. They had abandoned the love they had at first. Their ardor and zeal for Jesus Christ had grown cold. It’s a letter to a backsliding church. And today, we’re turning our attention to the church in the city of Smyrna, and this time it is a letter to a suffering church. Ephesus was a backslidden church; Smyrna is a suffering church.
History tells us of one young man from the city of Smyrna whom God called into the Gospel ministry who went by the name of Polycarp. The Apostle John was his mentor. John set him apart for pastoral office as the overseer of the church in his hometown of Smyrna. He was a man of God, eminent for his piety, for his devotion. He fulfilled his ministry with diligence and faithfulness until his eighty-sixth year of life. It was around the year 161 AD when Marcus Aurelius became the Roman emperor that a period of persecution for the church began. When Polycarp was finally apprehended, a barrage of pressure began to bear down upon him from his captors, constantly pushing him to say, “Caesar is Lord” and to offer sacrifice on the altar to the emperor as to a god. And of course, Polycarp consistently refused and so the pressure continued to mount and to mount, building and building, until he was at last sentenced to death in the arena. Coming into the stadium, the Roman proconsul again pushed him, telling him before the vast crowds that he might save his life if only he renounced Christ. “Swear, and I will release you! Reproach Christ,” he was told. Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years I have served Him and never once has He wronged me. How then shall I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
But the proconsul pressed him again, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar!” Polycarp replied, this is a bold man, “Since you vainly strive to make me swear by the fortune of Caesar as you express it, affecting ignorance of my real character, hear me frankly declaring what I am. I am a Christian, and if you desire to learn the Christian doctrine, assign me a day and you shall hear.” He’s standing in front of the crowds, everyone is baying for his blood, and he’s trying to evangelize the proconsul. And then the proconsul said, “I have wild beasts. I will expose you to them unless you repent.” “Call for them,” Polycarp said. “I will tame you with fire since you despise the wild beasts,” came the reply, but Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour and is soon extinguished, but the fire of the future judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly you are ignorant of! But why do you delay? Do what you must.” And the proconsul turned to the crowds saying, “Polycarp has professed himself a Christian,” to which they all screamed, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians and the subverter of our gods who has taught many of us not to sacrifice nor adore,” and they called for him to be burned at the sake. Once the pyre was built around him, Polycarp began to pray, “O Father, I bless You that You have counted me worthy to receive my portion among the number of the martyrs.” And as soon as he said, “Amen,” the fire was lit. And after suffering in the flames, Polycarp went to be with Jesus.
By any measure, Smyrna was a toxic environment within which to attempt to live the Christian life. For residents of Smyrna to follow Jesus Christ, whether in the days of Polycarp or as we see here in the days of Revelation chapter 2 in the days of the Apostle John himself, it required considerable courage. A quick glance at the passage we will read in just a moment demonstrates that the fledgling church in Smyrna experienced deep, sharp, prolonged suffering and it was escalating. And the message of Jesus Christ then for the suffering people of God in this city is designed to provide resources, to equip them to endure faithfully to the end. How shall we stay faithful when suffering is severe? That is the question Revelation 2, verses 8 to 11 answers. Before we read it together, however, would you bow your heads with me as we pray? Let us pray!
Lord Jesus, You spoke these words to John for the ancient church in Smyrna, and for the church here this evening. Would You give to us by the power of the Holy Spirit ears to hear what You say, a heart ready and receptive to receive the resources, the equipment You provide in Your Word in this portion of Scripture for our perseverance even through trials, that all the glory might be Yours. And so we pray this in Your name, amen.
Revelation chapter 2 at the eighth verse; This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are note, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
Amen. We praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.
The city of Smyrna, present day Izmir in Turkey, was built on a hill often called the “Crown of Smyrna.” Look at verse 10. Those who are faithful sufferers for Jesus in the city of Smyrna will be given a better crown, a crown of life. Jesus, you see, wants them to endure when faithfulness to Him becomes really costly. He wants them to be like rocks on the seashore. You know, the storm surge of suffering begins to slam down upon them, but when the waves at last draw back, they are “steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” That’s what these four verses are designed to help us with.
But before we look at that way that Jesus helps us stand firm in the storm and win the crown of life, we need to pause very quickly just to let the details of suffering register. Look at the vocabulary that Jesus uses to describe their circumstances. They endure, verse 9, “tribulation, poverty, slander.” Some of them, verse 10, “are afraid.” Apparently, there will be prison and even death. And the agents of suffering are here too, aren’t they? Verse 9, “There are those who say they are Jews and are not, but a synagogue of Satan.” Apparently, the Jewish community in Smyrna has rejected the Gospel message about Messiah Jesus and has become particularly instrumental in opposing the church. They claim to be the people of God, but their “slander,” or as the word might also be translated, their “blasphemy,” reveals them to be, in fact, a synagogue of a very different character altogether. Behind the human agents of suffering, there stands the malice of Satan. It is, verse 10, the devil who will throw some of them into prison. The spiritual combat zone that is the Christian life has spilled over into physical persecution. Satan sought to destroy the church in Smyrna, snuff out its witness, by bringing economic and political and legal and material and physical pressure and suffering to bear upon them.
And do notice, very quickly, that word “tribulation” that Jesus uses to sum up what is happening. You see it again in verse 9 and again in verse 10. “I know your tribulation. For ten days you will have tribulation.” The word in Greek is “thlipsis.” It means pressure. Picture a wine press. The fruit is placed into the barrel and then you turn the handle, and with each turn the pressure builds and the fruit is squeezed and crushed under the pressure. Down and down, turn by turn, the pressure mounts, squeezing relentlessly. Life in Smyrna was like existing inside one of those wine presses and Satan is turning the handle and building the pressure. This is a suffering church. And yet, I can’t help but feel reassured as I read the letter to the church at Smyrna. It’s almost like watching a video, one of those videos of a car being crash tested. You know how those things go! The manufacturers slam their new car at stop speed into a concrete wall to recreate under lab conditions the nightmare scenario none of us wants to experience – the head-on collision – just to make sure that if the nightmare came true, as it sometimes does, then the safety features will work as they’re supposed to nonetheless and we’ll walk away from the wreck, shaken perhaps, but whole.
Now those videos, they’re sobering to watch, aren’t they, to watch this vehicle we spend so much of our time in being just destroyed like that in slow motion. And yet, they’re also strangely comforting. The airbags all deployed, the dummy inside is untouched, okay. “I’ll be safe if the nightmare happens,” that’s what we think! Brothers and sisters, Revelation 2:8-11 is the crash test for the promises of Jesus Christ that are designed to keep us whole when the nightmare happens. So Jesus’ words to the church at Smyrna are spoken to you and to me here tonight if we are believers in Him. He says, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Following Jesus sometimes can be extreme and sore and hard. Suffering comes, but when it comes, as the church at Smyrna is designed to show us, the safety features of sovereign grace will keep us perfectly secure.
- The Design of Christian Suffering
Well what are those safety features? What are the resources of grace available to us when suffering comes? Let me highlight three things. You’re not surprised by that, are you? Three things – the design of Christian suffering, the duration of Christian suffering, and then finally the destiny of Christian sufferers. The design of Christian suffering, the duration of Christian suffering, and the destiny of Christian sufferers. Look at the passage and notice first of all what we learn here about the design of Christian suffering. Verse 10, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison. You will have tribulation; be faithful unto death.” That is terrible news! The storm surge is about to reach its height. “Things are bad now,” Jesus is saying, “but they’re about to get a whole lot worse. But do not be afraid.” And then He tells us one vital reason why not. Verse 10, “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison that you may be tested.” That you may be tested. The devil is at work in his rage, in his malice against Christ and His Church. He wants to shatter the faith of Christians. He wants to ruin their testimony. He wants to decimate the membership of the church and silence their witness. And if he can’t do it by tempting us to moral compromise, he will try persecution and opposition instead. That’s the devil’s agenda!
But Jesus tells the church at Smyrna, “God has another agenda altogether.” The attacks of the evil one in God’s design are tests of our faith. The suffering church in the providence of God is being taught and trained and shaped and led through the hard and sore places of daily trials to cling more thoroughly and desperately to Christ and to walk in new obedience as He enables them. James chapter 1 at verses 2 and 3, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of various kinds. For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” That’s what God intends by our trials, He wants the testing of our faith to produce. He’s working to make our faith productive, to produce steadfastness in the worst of times. Or 1 Peter 1 verses 6 and 7, “In this you rejoice, though now if need be you have been grieved by various kinds of trials so that the tested genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that perishes, though it is refined by fire may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” He is refining your faith in the furnace of affliction to burn away impurities and make it shine like refined God. That’s what God is doing!
We need to cultivate that perspective, don’t we, when we feel deluged by our sufferings and our trials and we see the assaults of the evil one. We need to remember what Joseph told his brothers in Genesis 50. You will remember, they came down to Egypt seeking relief, not knowing that the brother whom they thought they had been rid of and killed was now the prince of Egypt. And as he revealed himself to them he told them, “What men,” and we might add in the light of our passage, even Satan, “intends for evil, God intends for good.” God is at work even in your trials, suffering Christian, to make you more like Christ. The design of Christian suffering.
- The Duration of Christian Suffering
Then secondly, notice the duration of Christian suffering. Look again at verse 10. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” Suffering is coming but it has limits. Ten days; not eleven, not fifteen. Ten days! Jesus is in charge of our tears and our trials. He orders them and governs them. Only ten days. You may sometimes feel like a castaway, you know, floating alone in an endless ocean of hurt. And no matter which way you look, all the way to the horizon line there’s no way in sight, no end to your situation. Sometimes it feels like that! We need to be reminded there is always a shoreline to every ocean, even when you cannot see it. To paraphrase one commentator, “Our sufferings may test our limits but there are always limits to our sufferings.” Our sufferings may test our limits but there are always limits to our sufferings. Isn’t that good news? You may be tested, you may feel like you have come to the edge of your resilience and your ability to cope, and yet even there in the extremity Christ knows our frame, remembers that we are but dust, and has grace to sustain us and will one day place a thus far and no farther at the border of our trials. We need to hold onto both of those truths tenaciously, don’t we? Both Satan and suffering are superintended and governed, restrained, bounded, limited by the sovereign purpose of a gracious Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Martin Luther famously said of the devil, “He is God’s devil.” In all his rage and malice, he is nevertheless the unwilling, perhaps sometimes unwitting agent of God’s larger design in our lives. And the same is true of our trials. We belong to Him! Our suffering has both a design and a duration. And as we begin to submit to His wise order of all things, we learn not to be afraid by the things we are about to suffer.
- The Destiny of Christian Sufferers
The design, then the duration of Christian suffering, then the third part of Jesus’ provision for us has to do with the destiny of Christian sufferers. Look at verses 10 and 11. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” Persevering faithfulness to Jesus all the way to the end is the path to life. Press on! There is a glorious future for you, believer in Jesus. That’s the message. Press on! In this world you will have trouble. This world is not your home. This is not your final destination. Press on to the land of rest and glory that waits for you.
The Second Death
Look at that phrase, “the second death,” for a moment. The second death in Revelation, we will see, is just another name for hell. Which means, as one preacher put it, “Those who are born only once die twice. Those who are born twice die only once.” Those who are born only once die twice. There’s a second death! Those who are born twice, you’ve been born again, only ever die once. Christians are twice born, born again; reborn Christians persevere. They are faithful unto death. They cross the finish line. They’re born twice and so they die only once. I wonder if that’s you! Is that you? Have you been born again? The second death will not hurt you, child of God, born again by grace. The crown of life will be yours. What a hope we have! Sometimes our trials are so terribly dark because we’ve taken our eyes from the finish line, from the hope that is set before us. And that’s that promise, that hope comes to us in our text. It comes as the promise of the one, notice how this whole letter begins, it is the promise of the one who is the first and the last, who died and who came to life.
Now why does Jesus use that particular description of Himself as He addresses the suffering church at Smyrna? Isn’t He reminding us of the stone that was rolled away and the tomb that was found empty and the grave clothes folded there, of that stirring moment when the disciples who had their doors closed for fear of the Jews suddenly found the risen Christ alive, standing in their midst? Isn’t Jesus reminding us He has defeated death, triumphed over the worst malice of Satan, plumbed the depths of the darkest abyss of suffering and He has brought life and immortality to light. He is the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in Him, even though he die, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in Him, shall never die. Do you believe this? As the catechism beautifully expresses it, “The souls of believers are, at their death, made perfect in holiness and do pass immediately into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves until the resurrection.” There’s only one death for us and our destiny is gloriously bright. Twice born believer in Jesus, the second death will not hurt you. You shall be given the crown of life from the hand of the one who has destroyed death – the Lord of life, the Lord Jesus Himself.
So the details of Christian suffering, they are often severe and behind them, very often, is the malice of the evil one himself. But as we suffer, let us never forget those three truths. The design of our suffering, whatever Satan intends, is our refining and testing and growth. The duration of our suffering is limited and bounded by the wise governance of a sovereign Savior. And the destiny of the Christian sufferer, however dark and bleak their trials may be here, is bright and full of life. So when God says, when Jesus says to us as He does in this text, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” He gives us the resources to obey His exhortation and to say, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.”
Let’s pray together!
How we praise You, Lord Jesus, that You have defeated death having plumbed to the bottom the darkest abyss of suffering. You have made public spectacle of the evil one, triumphing over him by the cross. And now as the Lord of life, You give to us in our trials sustaining grace and the promise of a crown of life to come. O forgive us, please, in the midst of our worst trials for the ways in which we have allowed them to obscure our bright hope and to give into despair and doubt and unbelief and fear. Help us as You summon us not to be afraid of what we are about to suffer, to remember that You design, You have a bright design for our worse trials, that none of them are unrestrained but all of them bounded by Your purpose and at their end their waits for us glory. Hear us as we cry to You in Jesus’ name, amen.