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When the first followers of Jesus gathered to his side, they didn’t really understand what they were getting themselves into. The church of Jesus’ day taught that when the Messiah finally arrived, he would establish a visible, powerful, glorious, governmental church—which would rule the earth.
And so, when Jesus appeared, and began to heal the sick, cast out demons, and do all sorts of miracles, the people flocked to him. They thought the new age of Jewish glory had finally arrived—and they wanted in on it.
And so it was hard for the disciples of Jesus to understand, and to believe him, when Jesus spoke of how he was destined to suffer a humiliating death.
When Jesus told his inner circle of apostles that they too would suffer persecution, and even martyrdom, his words fell on numb ears. How could this be? Didn’t the Old Testament speak of great glory for the followers of God? What were they missing? What didn’t they understand?
What they were missing was that the time of glory would not come on this earth, but only after the day of judgment. Only after the judgment, and the renewal of all things, would the followers of Christ get to stand by their Heavenly Father’s throne in glory. In this world, the followers of Christ should expect persecution, and even death, for faithfully proclaiming his message.
Author C.S. Lewis once put it like this…
“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis).
Soldiers in enemy territory don’t expect tea and crumpets. They expect to be uncomfortable. They expect to face violent opposition. But they know that one day the war will end, and things will be different.
Today we’re going to continue our study of the seven letters that Jesus wrote to the churches in Asia Minor. Last Sunday we heard Jesus rebuke the Loveless Church. Today he changed his tone to encourage The Persecuted Church.
May the Holy Spirit cause us to understand, to be comforted, and to grow in our trust of Christ. Amen.
Revelation 2:8-11 (NASB)
8 “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:
9 ‘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.
10 ‘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.
11 ‘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.’
The city of Smyrna was located about 40 miles north of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, Smyrna was a sizable city, home to pagan temples. It also contained a Jewish synagogue.
We have no record of Paul or any other apostle visiting Smyrna. We assume that the church there was started by Ephesian Christians traveling north to share the Gospel. But we don’t really know for sure how this city first heard about Christ.
What we do know, is that the Christians in Smyrna were facing great pressure. That’s what the Greek word for “tribulation” means, “pressure”. This word can refer to anything that weighs on a person, but Christ’s words suggests that the pressure these Christians were feeling came upon them because they were faithfully sharing the message of grace and forgiveness from God, through his crucified and risen Son.
In addition to religious persecution, the Christians in Smyrna also faced the challenge of being poor. This was not a time of great social generosity. This was a time when unpaid debt could lead to legal slavery. There were no Food Stamps and Medicare for these people.
Besides these things, the Christians of Smyrna were being slandered by the local Synagogue. We’re not told exactly what was being said, so we can only guess. But we do know that in other places as Christianity spread, Christians were accused of things like cannibalism or sacrificing their own children.
Jesus starts this letter of encouragement by reminding the Christians of Smyrna that he is “the first and the last”, that is, Jesus is the eternal God. Then he reminds them that he is the one “who was dead, and has come to life”. By describing himself in this way, Jesus is reinforcing the truth that he is both God and Man.
To a church that was facing persecution, this was a comforting message. Jesus, THE ETERNAL GOD, and was watching over their lives. He knew what they were facing. Jesus, the one who had RISEN FROM THE DEAD, had power over death still, and would raise his followers to life on the last day.
These reminders were important for these Christians, because soon they would be facing greater suffering. Jesus warns them of this upcoming tribulation so that their faith won’t be shaken when they are thrown in prison, or when they see their brothers and sisters in Christ thrown into prison for the faith.
The devil intended this persecution to shake their faith to the core, causing them to abandon Jesus. But Jesus would use this persecution to stoplight the faith of the Christians at Smyrna. Their trust in the Savior would shine, and perhaps draw more people to their Savior.
I wonder what the reaction of the Christians in Smyrna was when they heard this letter read. Remember, we’re reading someone else’s mail here. This letter was written to real people. Imagine getting a letter directly from Jesus that says, “I’ve seen your hardships, now get ready for more. Some of you will be thrown in jail soon, and you’ll be under great pressure for ten days.”
But Jesus accompanies this revelation with a tender promise. He says, DON’T BE AFRAID about the suffering to come. I’m the eternal God. I’ve got power over death. Your time of tribulation will only last so long. Keep trusting in me, and I’ll give you the crown of eternal life. Hell won’t be able to touch you then.
It’s fitting that we read Christ’s letter of comfort to the persecuted church on this Sunday, for today is Reformation Sunday. This is the Sunday of the year that we use to remember the Lutheran Reformation.
Almost 500 years ago, God used Martin Luther to restore the Gospel message to a world that had nearly lost it. And through much of his life, Luther experienced the same things that the Christians at Smyrna did. If Martin Luther and the Christians at Smyrna could have met, they would have had a lot of similar stories to share.
The Christians at Smyrna were poor. Luther too, was born into a poor family. Luther’s parents, Hans and Margareta, were peasants. Hans worked hard to provide for his family. He was a miner. Margareta worked at home, caring for their four sons and three daughters. Like those in Smyrna, this family didn’t have insurance. They didn’t have food stamps. They didn’t have an emergency room to run when sickness hit.
While the Christians at Smyrna were outwardly poor, Jesus tells us that they were actually RICH. That is, they had the Gospel message. They knew their sins were paid for by the Son of God. They knew that the Creator of the universe loved them dearly.
But Luther didn’t have this richness in his youth. His parents didn’t know the Gospel of forgiveness because the church wasn’t preaching that message anymore. Instead, they taught Luther that Jesus was a stern judge who expected him to be perfect, and to pay for each sin he committed. Through stern discipline at home, and at church, Luther learned to fear God in the worst way.
While attending university, Luther’s fear of God only increased. A close friend of Luther’s died suddenly, and unexpectedly. And while traveling back to school from home one day Luther found himself in a violent lightning storm. He was so afraid that God was finally coming for him, that he vowed to give his life to God if God would just spare him from death in the storm. He vowed to become a monk.
Though Luther thought God was angry with him because of his sins, God was actually leading Luther on a path to learn about God’s free forgivness. As a monk, Luther’s superior told him to study the Bible. And as Luther began to study the Bible, he began to see that the God of the Bible was much different than the God the church had taught him to know.
Though the God of the Bible certainly hated sin, Luther discovered the God of the Bible had provided a way for sinners to escape judgment and hell. One particular verse stuck in Luther’s mind. Luther read…
“16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17 NKJV).
Luther came to understand that Christ Jesus was not just an angry judge. Christ suffered and died to erase the sinner’s sin. What kind of judge does something like that?! Not an angry, hateful judge, but a loving, compassionate one. Luther learned that forgiveness of sins and eternal life was a gift from God, given through faith in Jesus. When the Holy Spirit finally got through to Luther with this Gospel message, the spiritually bankrupt Luther became rich, just like the Christians at Smyrna.
And it was then that Luther began to face tribulation, just like the Christians at Smyrna. After becoming a monk, Luther become a priest, then a professor, then a scholar, and then finally he was appointed to be the preacher at a church in the German city of Wittenberg.
As Luther continued to study God’s Word and to preach what he found there, the power of the Gospel began to take hold of him. One historian writes…
“The true Gospel of salvation by grace through Jesus Christ grew on him with increasing force as the great fountain of divine wisdom and knowledge was opened to him and the refreshing waters of life began to pour forth from him upon his hearers. He began to teach and preach that forgiveness of sin was obtained not by outward works of righteousness, but was bestowed freely by grace upon all who fully believed in Christ alone who had fulfilled all the demands of the Law and borne all our sins” (Sketches from the History of the Church, E. Hageman).
Amazingly, Luther didn’t start preaching against the church that had mislead him all his life. He still was convinced that the Pope was the rightful leader of God’s church and must simply not know what was being taught in his churches. He figured that if the Pope knew what was going on in Germany he would set things right and direct the people to trust in Christ alone for their forgiveness.
But this wasn’t the case. And when the leaders of Roman Church heard what Luther was teaching, they demanded that he stop teaching the Gospel and burn all his writings. Eventually the Pope excommunicated Luther from the church and convinced the Emperor of Europe to declare Luther an outlaw. Now, for simply preaching what the Bible said, Luther could be legally murdered by anyone who found him. Talk about pressure.
Friends of Luther had him kidnapped by vizored knights as he traveled home from the city of Worms. They took him to the castle of Wartburg to keep him safe from the Pope and the Emperor. Though he wasn’t imprisoned in the same way that the Christians at Smyrna were, Luther was entering into his own “tribulation for ten days”. For the last 25 years of his life, Luther would remain an enemy of the state, unable to travel openly.
And just as the Christians at Smyrna faced slander from the unbelieving Jews of their city, Luther was also mercilessly slandered by the writers of the Catholic Church.
One historian records the following…
“Scarcely had it been published when a pamphlet from Italy came to hand, giving and account of Luther’s death. It related how Luther had died shortly after having received the sacrament and that his body had been placed on the altar. After the burial a terrific storm arose and the communion wafer was seen suspended in the air. During the next night there was a great noise at the grave which was found empty, emitting such stifling sulphurous fumes that none could approach it. In reply Luther republished the pamphlet, stating in a preface that it might be regarded as a huge joke, if it were not so sacrilegious” (Sketches from the History of the Church, E. Hageman).
Eventually, the real death of Luther took place, though it was not so sensational. Luther’s health had grown worse in recent years, and when he returned to Eisleben, where he had been born and baptized, he commented to his doctor that he believed he would soon die. Friends gathered around him there, and as Luther struggled to sleep amid his final pains, his friends became anxious. They woke the pained Luther and asked, “Reverend Father, are you ready to die in the faith of your Lord Jesus Christ and in the doctrine which you have preached in His name?” Luther’s reply was a simple and clear, “Yes.” And that night the Lord released Luther from his life of suffering and persecution.
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life,” the Lord Jesus told the Christians at Smyrna. “He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:10,11 NASB). We look forward to meeting Luther in person, when we gather with all the faithful beside our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the book of Second Timothy it says…
“12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12 ESV).