Suffering Refines (Revelation 2:8-11)

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Everybody loves God when life is easy. But when life is tough, do you still trust God?

  • When life is challenging, do you still give thanks for the faithfulness of God?
  • When life is hard, are you still faithful to smile and serve God with eager generosity?
  • When life devastates you with loss, whether family or financial, do you still believe Jesus is near and enough?
  • When life is overwhelming to the point you think you can’t handle anymore but another trouble turns up on your door step, do you still turn to God for wisdom or to the world to temporarily indulge your sin-cravings?
  • When life is threatens to steal, kill, and destroy your joy, do you still hope in the resurrection and the life found in Jesus Christ?

C.S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point.” In other words, no person will know if they truly believe what they say until it is tested. It takes loving someone difficult or in difficult circumstances to know you are a person of compassion. It takes telling the truth at a moment of personal sacrifice to know you have integrity. It takes a soldier moving forward on the battlefield to know they’re a person of bravery and honor.

Today’s message is Rev 2:8-11 church of Smyrna who endured tribulations, but still trusted in the Lord.

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EXAMINE           Revelation 2:8-11      Suffering Refines

Jesus writes letters to 7 churches. Last week we started the first letter to Ephesus and today is the second letter to the church of Smyrna.

We should be reminded that

  • The church is important for all ages. We cannot bypass the church and still believe we are on the road to Jesus and heaven.
  • Jesus cares for the church to speak commendation and critique. The church may have some wrinkles, warts, and weaknesses but Jesus still walks by her side with refining grace.
  • These 7 churches have a unique message but they are connected to each other. Each letter reveals something different about Jesus. Each letter reveals a strength and weakness where the church needs to grow. The churches need each other to learn from one another how to love Jesus and the world around us. And so, we learn today from Smyrna…

 

Revelation 2:8-11
8  “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

Smyrna was located approximately 35 miles north of Ephesus. It was a beautiful gulf city with land starting at sea level and peaking up towards mountains that “crowned” the city. The seaport had a thriving harbor and many pleasant views.

The downside of the seaport is that the plains had no proper drainage and when the rains came it flooded and all the filth surrounded the city. While the city was scenic, when the storms came no one wanted to be around it because of the stench.

  • That’s like our lives: when the sun shines and God blesses we are sweet but when the storms come we doubt God’s goodness and we grumble and become ungrateful.
  • Today we will see that God is able to sustain those who experience the storms and sufferings of this world. We will see at least 2 ways how suffering refines us.

We do not know much about FBC Smyrna 🙂 but perhaps likely it was started either directly or indirectly through Paul’s ministry in the area (Acts 19:10). Smyrna was a city known for supporting Rome and had the unique privilege of building a temple to the emperor Tiberius. Undoubtedly, the Christians had to survive persecution amid pagan worship. All else we learn of the church is from the commendation of Jesus but notedly the absence of a critique from Jesus; Smyrna and Philadelphia are only churches not to receive a specific condemnation. Jesus describes Smyrna as poor and Philadelphia as little… while the others were affluent and accomplished in significance. This note reminds us that the church people attend is not always the one Jesus approves. While our world is prone to evaluate churches with attendance, buildings, cash, Jesus does not solely emphasize these criteria. To Jesus, it is better to be faithful with little than famous with much; and sometimes God gives His church much to steward and be a significant force of influence for the kingdom.

Suffering refines us from viewing death as dominant; Jesus is dominant.

‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

Jesus introduces himself with a previous description from earlier (Rev 1:17). Jesus being the first and last, and the one who died and came to life would be quite an encouraging reminder for the Smyrna Christians. Later in the passage Jesus tells them, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’”  The “second death is described in Revelation 20:11-15; 21:8 as the eternal judgment of hell. While Smyrna Christians experienced a first death – whether through martyrdom or other causes – none had to fear eternal judgment because of their faith in Christ.

Further, the Smyrna city had an ancient history, being destroyed in 600BC. The city was dead for three centuries until it was commissioned to be rebuilt by Alexander the Great in 290BC. Today the gulf region survives as the Turkish city Izmir.

God has the power to resurrect people and places that appear dead.

  • If you are nearing death, you have nothing to fear, it’s just a doorway to meet Jesus. I hear people say this life is better than the alternative… nope, not with Jesus! Resurrection bodies and heaven with Jesus has so much more to offer than this world cursed by sin.
  • If you are facing circumstances that appear unpromising and unsolvable, then you need the reminder that Jesus is the first and the last and the author of fresh starts and new beginnings. Pray. Fast. And pursue the wisdom of God while you desperately knock on heaven’s door for God to breathe new life upon you.
    • “God gives life to the dead and calls to existence things that do not exist … according to His promise[s]” (Romans 4:17, 21)
  • Jesus is speaking these words of faith, renewal, and hope to a church and these promises are still true today. No church needs to slouch or spiral into irrelevance. God can renew the faith and fires of love within His body: let us remember – repent – repeat our first works.

 

Suffering refines us from viewing tribulation as triumphant; Jesus is triumphant.

9  ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty [πτωχεία= begging poor] (but you are rich; cf. 3:17) and the slander [βλασφημία = blasphemy, speaking ill of Christians was doing so against God] of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

Among the religious and political worshipers of Smyrna were Jews. The Jews were not forced to worship Caesar as a god, but allowed to offer sacrifices in honor of emperors as rulers and not as gods. However, Christianity was viewed differently as a new religion and Christians were slandered. Christians were slandered with various accusations:

  • Unpatriotic: Because they did not follow social customs of allegiance to Caesar and Rome.
  • Atheists: Because they did not worship the pagan gods. Many Christians were persecuted from the Jews and synagogues since they spoke of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus says the church is the new Israel and one with God’s people, whereas others are a synagogue of Satan.
  • Cannibals: Because they talked about drinking from the blood and eating from the body of Jesus.
  • Antifamily: Because they called each other brother/sister and sometimes split from biological family
    (cf. Mt 10:34-39; 19:29).

Jesus calls the Jewish actions blasphemy. Speaking ill about followers of Jesus is not just pestering Christians but provoking God. Jesus said these Jews – God’s people – were a synagogue of Satan; they were doing the work of the devil. The Jews turned Christians into Roman authorities to appease their own safety and political power.

Likewise, there are two applications for today’s culture.

  • As the Jews slandered Christians, so it still happens today. Christians are slandered for being dangerous to society, as promoting anti-intellectual, anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-diversity, anti-tolerance, etc. The response of Christians to this slander is to defend the name of Jesus and not allow debate to become personal.
  • A second application is that people who claim to follow God and are on the inside of the church but are not genuine believers. Watch out for wolves among the sheep. Be cautious of those who talk about God but then neglect the character of Jesus toward people made in the image of God (cf. Mat 25). As Jesus rebuked the synagogue of satan, today He cautions and challenges against being a church insensitive and indifferent to people Jesus for whom Jesus died.
  • Jesus knows the pains of tribulation… doesn’t make it easier but does provide purpose and hope. Don’t think no one knows what it’s like to experience trials and tribulations – Jesus does!
    • For continuing to live right even when you’re not being rewarded and sometimes are even punished from the worldly system of injustice.
    • For standing firm on faith convictions against the social immorality of the day, and then being labeled a religious fanatic or intolerant and prejudiced.
    • For speaking up and witnessing about faith in Jesus, but then being mistreated: overlooked for promotions, kept out of groups with silent treatment, or worse being bullied or even having your life threatened as in other parts of the world for being a Christ follower.

 

10  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.

Christians were arrested, tortured, and brought into the arena to serve as public entertainment. The blood-thirsty crowds cheered the inhumane games of Roman authorities. Christians were paraded through cities in vile ways or made to be a public spectacle being fed to animals.

 

One famous Christian martyr in Smyrna was a church leader named Polycarp. Polycarp was a disciple of John and became a Bishop (pastor) in Smyrna. It is difficult to discern between legend and tradition of Polycarp’s martyrdom, but it is said Polycarp welcomed his captors and offered them a meal. While the soldiers ate and enjoyed the hospitality, Polycarp prayed for his captors. Their hearts were moved by this man’s faith and they along with others encouraged Polycarp to publicly confess “Caesar is Lord” so he wouldn’t have to be taken away. However, he would not, stating: “Eighty-six years I have served Him. He had never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
The stories continue authorities threatened Polycarp with wild beasts and fire but he still didn’t recant Christianity. They were going to nail or tie Polycarp to a beam and light it on fire but they couldn’t locate nails or rope. Polycarp assured them God would give him the strength to stay on the beam. He prayed, “Father, I bless you that you have deemed me worthy of this day and hour, that I might take a portion of the martyrs in the cup of Christ. . . Among these may I today be welcome before thy face as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.”

While they lit the fire,

  • one legend has it that a strong wind came and the flames parted away from the body of Polycarp.
  • Another legend has it that the burning smelled not like flesh but as fresh bread baking as a sweet aroma.

Nonetheless, the soldiers could not stand to see the old man Polycarp burning any longer and they finished him off with a sword stab.

Polycarp’s martyrdom encouraged other Christians to stand strong for the faith even in persecution, and he became a compelling witness for others to know why Polycarp was willing to die for the Savior bc He first gave his life for us. Today’s Christianity needs courage from our forefathers to face cultural headwinds, social persecution, and perhaps physical death.

Jesus uses Satan’s schemes for a greater purpose of strengthening His people through tribulation and suffering. Jesus limits their tribulation to 10 days – a brief amount of time – and exhorts the church toward faithfulness and fruitfulness for eternity. It is only faith enduring suffering that identifies with Jesus and receives the crown of life.

  • 10 days – also Daniel 1:12 and also the 10 plagues in Exodus (cf. Numbers 14:22).
  • Jesus’s exhortation “Be faithful unto death” reminds believers to persevere because a crown of life awaits. A “crown” was awarded to winning athletes, but NT also uses it as a reward received after our death (cf. 2Tim 4:8; 1Pet 5:4) that somehow inspires us that all our troubles were worth experiencing just to be with Jesus. Victors crown to Smyrna is compared to tree of life with Ephesus.
  • We must remember that all earthly suffering has an expiration date.
  • In all, tribulation is not triumphant, Jesus is.

 

There’s a biblical theme of not fearing suffering and death all throughout the Bible

  • Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”
  • Psalm 46:1 “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.”
  • Psalm 56:3, 11 “When I am afraid, I will trust in you… I will not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?
  • Daniel – in lions den, in fiery furnace
  • Mt 10:28 “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul…”
  • 1Pet 3:14-15; 4:12-19 Do not fear their threats… Do not be surprised at suffering…
  • Heb 11:27 “By faith Moses left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible”
  • Heb 13:5–6: “God has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
  • Revelation 1:9; 6:9; 12:9-12 – John’s example with Christian witness to martyrdom during tribulation shows a fearless witnesses.

Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble [θλῖψιν], but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
(John 16:33)

Grapes must be crushed to make wine.
Diamonds are formed under pressure.
Olives must be pressed to release oil.
Seeds grow in darkness.
Whenever you feel crushed, under pressure, pressed, or in darkness, you are in a place of transformation… God is at work. Do not fear, God is near.

 

APPLY/THINK

Pain precedes healing… God uses suffering to bring us salvation: look at Jesus.

11  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

C.S. Lewis “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Difficulty leads to discovery about self, but more about God.

 

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