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"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: 'The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. -- Revelation 2: 8 (ESV)
As we continue to examine the letters Jesus Christ wrote to the seven churches in Asia at the opening of the Revelation provided to the Apostle John, we come to the Church in Smyrna. This is one of the two churches listed that were only provided with encouragement, for they were not found lacking. That should be the first take away for us today. It is easy to become jaded and disillusioned within modern churchianity. We all know people who have sworn off the thought of being involved with an organized church. Driven by church hurt, these people become ripe targets for the enemy for self-righteousness and individualized false teachings. While it is true that wherever believers are that is the church, the Bible makes it plain in the New Testament that we were meant to be in community. Ecclesiastes also reminds us the importance of being with others of like faith:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him -- a threefold cord is not easily broken. -- Ecclesiastes 4: 9-11 (ESV)
I have dealt with the church hurt loner types. They often think their virtual community online counts and it simply does not. Their doctrine is usually quite suspect and there is little good to be done by trying to explain this to them. They spend their time angry at the church. They stand around the Bride of Christ with stones in their hands and call her a whore. Not a good position to be found in. Jesus loves His bride and He is coming back for her. What gets lost often in the daily grind of discernment is that there are always remnants of believers within every church, even those that are apostate. We saw this in the opening devotional examining the Church at Ephesus. What we forget these days is that nearly all discernment is focused upon churches that are nationally known. If we think that encompasses the entire church then it can start to feel as if there are no good churches and that is equally unfair. There are still good pastors who refuse to compromise the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who will not implement the church growth schemes of false purpose or alter the Gospel to draw people in. Will they be found on Christian television? No, probably not. But they are out there beloved and while it may take some work to find them or inconvenience to attend them, we ought not allow that to stop us. The existence of the Church at Smyrna gives us hope today and forces us to realize that not all hope is lost. Some will overcome. Some will conquer. Some will persevere.
The key verse is the opening of the letter. In each opening, Jesus starts by emphasizing a part of who He is. It is generally a part that has some relevance to the remainder of the letter. In the letter to the Church at Ephesus we saw Him emphasize the fact that He holds the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands, which are the seven churches. In the letter itself, He threatens to remove their lampstand, His presence, if they do not repent. Here in this opening to Smyrna we see Jesus assuring them of who He is. He is comforting them, as He will throughout this letter. That same comfort is available for the church today but for many it will not be comforting at all. In these two descriptions, Jesus sums up what this is all about if we are to consider ourselves Christians. He is the first and the last. He is the beginning and the end. He is the Alpha and the Omega. Jesus Christ is everything and everything in between. There is nothing that is not His beloved. If we are found in Him this is immensely reassuring. It does not matter what we will face on this earth and in this life that He is not in complete control of. We did not start without Him and we will not end without Him. The only question is what is He to us? One of the poorer theologies out there today is this notion that you need to ask unbelievers to enter into a relationship with Jesus. Beloved, everyone is already in a relationship with Jesus Christ. The only question is the status of that relationship. The second description Christ emphasizes is the reason why we can have faith in Him. He is the one who died and came back to life! Jesus Christ conquered death itself and now because of this victory, we are assured eternal life! Keep your seven steps to a better you and your prosperity of baubles and trinkets! Give me the guy who defeated death! The one who is everything in this life and everything in the one that is to come. Jesus now gets into the heart of the letter:
"I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. - Revelation 2: 9 (ESV)
Let us first realize the omniscience of the God we serve. He knows beloved. Whether it be joy and peace or tribulation, poverty, and slander. Sometimes it can seem as though the heavens are brass because we pray. Often the problem is our prayers are seeking approval for decisions we already have reached instead of "not my will but Yours be done." Often times the answer is no but we keep asking because we do not like the answer. This is part of the "Error of Balaam"; which we will discuss during this series. When it comes to Smyrna however, Jesus assures them that He sees their tribulation. This is a concept rarely preached on in the church today because it is not deemed seeker friendly. Who wants to hear that they can expect tribulation? That is not a selling point to the carnal mind. They want to hear that they are King David slaying their Goliath to achieve their dream destiny thingy and march straight into the purpose God had set up for them before the foundations of the earth! That'll pack em in! The actual teachings of Jesus, not so much:
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world." -- Matthew 16: 33 (ESV)
We have no idea what tribulation is in this country. We will find out soon and most will leave the church when they discover their faith was never actually in Christ. Besides tribulation however, Jesus sees their poverty. It is interesting to note here however that he qualifies it by letting them know that they are actually rich. What does this mean? For starters it means our perspective is usually skewed. It is skewed by the fallen world we live in. We use carnal metrics to measure spiritual success and often see things as the world does instead of how God sees it. I have spoken to local pastors who look at mega churches with envy incorrectly. If God gives you a congregation of 200 and the vast majority go on to everlasting life you will hear "well done my good and faithful servant." If you grow your church through carnal means and it grows by the world's standards to 5000 but the vast majority are never converted, my guess is you will not hear those words. How often do we see that it is the small storefront church that has the greatest move of the Spirit of God? How often do we see the large mega church needing to rely on cheap gimmicks to replicate such?
The purpose driven mind cannot see this because they are too focused on richness as defined by this world. We saw Andy Stanley this year chastise people who attend small churches as being "so darn selfish." His argument was that it was not about them. Andy Stanley is wrong. Church is all about the saints. Just read Chapter Two of the Book of Acts. The shepherd's job is to tend to the sheep; not entertain the goats. Do we want the unsaved to visit our church? Of course! The same thing that has the power to save them is the same thing that nourishes the believer into maturity in Christ and that is the Gospel! But you do not cater the service to them. You do not market the church to them. If you are doing what God has commanded you then your church will stand out like a shining city on a hill and that is when people will be drawn. The term seeker friendly is such a misnomer. The vast majority of these people are not really seeking God. If they were, He is not that difficult to find. No beloved. In the purpose driven model the church becomes the seeker. It uses tricks and schemes to draw the unsaved in. It draws them with entertainment. It draws them with motivational and self-help speakers. The worst thing is it draws them with the promise of eternal life without the cost associated with it. The result is churches like Andy Stanley's, which appear rich but are spiritually poor. The Church at Smyrna was the opposite. If the world looked upon it, they would see poverty but Jesus saw nothing but spiritual wealth!
Perhaps no greater rebuke for falsely representing God do we see than the accusation Jesus Christ levels now at the Jewish people who were rebuking the fledgling Christian faith at Smyrna. He sees that Smyrna has been contending with a sect of Jewish believers who were slandering them. Remember, the early Christians were largely converted Jews. Just like the Pharisees who sent Christ to His cross, the early Jewish believers did not take well to those who did not bow to their authority. This may not seem relevant today but it most definitely is. The Seeker-Friendly Industrial Complex is a multinational business beloved. It operates in nearly every corner of the world making money hand over fist. It has satellite TV and radio stations. It has tremendous political influence as well. It has power and it protects the brand at all costs. Those who seek true doctrine and refuse to compromise the Gospel of Jesus Christ are greeted with the same slander as the Church at Smyrna was contending with. I have reviewed so many sermons where the people who wanted biblical truth were mocked and derided. They have been called jackasses during sermons. They have been referred to as the excrement in the body of Christ. As we saw earlier, they are just so darn selfish. Just as the Jews of that age were misrepresenting God for their own carnal desires, so does the Christo-machine of today. But look at the rebuke Jesus holds for them! They are not Jews! They are not Christians! They are in fact a synagogue of Satan! They are in fact doing the work of the enemy. I know that sounds harsh but remember the Bible teaches us that we are either gathering people to Christ or scattering them away from Him. The Church at Smyrna were gathering people to Him and the Jews that slandered them were scattering them away. As it was, so it still goes today. Jesus continues in His letter:
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. -- Revelation 2: 10 (ESV)
We have spoken about tribulation but the reality is that Christians will also face persecution for their beliefs. I know this flies in the face of modern Christianity. Everything in church today is presented as puppies and rainbows. The reality is that everyone wants the crown of glory but few realize the crown of thorns must come first. The first takeaway from this verse is Jesus comforts us to not fear. Suffering may be on our doorstep but we are not to fear. Easy to teach not so much to apply. But this is not the first time Jesus has had to teach us this:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. -- Matthew 10: 28 (ESV)
Once again, we value the wrong life beloved. Our focus is always on what we know in this world but we have a promise beyond this world. Beyond this glimmer of a life. The devil will work overtime to tempt us to renounce Christ based upon temporal suffering. Just a few weeks ago the head of the Assemblies of God wrote an article propping up his political choice for president and in it he expressed that future persecution that might come to America includes congregants not being able to deduct their tithes and offerings from their taxes. Perish the thought! This in the same age when Middle Eastern Christians are given a choice between renouncing Christ or facing beheading. Real persecution is coming beloved and it will not be contained to the tax code. We need to gird ourselves up and be prepared. We need to have an eternal perspective, as the Church at Smyrna clearly had. Why should we be comforted? Because it will only last ten days! Now before you get overly excited, most theologians agree this does not mean ten literal days. Many interpret it to mean ten years! Regardless, I find the comfort in the definite period of time. Remember, Jesus is the Alpha and Omega. The devil has no power over eternity beloved. Ten hours, ten days, ten years. At some point it will end. We will be tested but we must remain faithful. How does the Iraqi Christian choose beheading? Because he is being faithful unto his own death. Because he knows there is more than this life. Because he does not fear what man thinks he can do to him. Because he knows that the crown of life awaits him. Eternal life with his Savior! Jesus concludes His letter to the Church at Smyrna:
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. -- Revelation 2: 11 (ESV)