Persecuted and enduring
We have it easy. No one is knocking on our door at home because we are Christians. No one is confiscating our property because of our faith in Christ. Our lives are in no danger whatsoever because we read our Bibles and meet to sing hymns about Jesus. Of course, perhaps this is one of the problems in the church in America. Maybe we have it too easy. Our faith is usually not challenged. Our comfort has the danger of producing a spiritual lethargy. How many Christians are there who do not study their Bibles or regularly pray? And how many are there who are not prepared for any kind of struggle? Many Christians would probably be hard pressed to clearly state what they believe, let alone defend it Biblically.
The story of the church in Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11) is the story of an impoverished, persecuted church and it is a stirring one. Smyrna was a lovely city in antiquity. It was sometimes called the ‘ornament of Asia’ and, in that region, was second only to Ephesus. Smyrna boasted a famous stadium, a library, and the largest public theater in Asia. The population during the first century has been estimated to be around 200,000.
The letter written to Smyrna was one of two letters, out of seven, which contained no rebuke from the Lord (the other one being the letter to the church at Philadelphia). The first words Jesus says to this church are “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev 2:9). These Christians were materially poor, but were spiritually wealthy. They were financially bankrupt, but were rich in grace. James 2:4 uses the same words to describe someone who is poor in this world’s goods, but rich in faith.
There are rich men who are poor and there are poor men who are rich. There are rich people who lack nothing of this world’s goods, but if one could see into their hearts, there would be emptiness and fear and confusion. And there are poor people who have nothing of this world’s goods, yet if one could see into their hearts, there is fullness and peace and security. Which one is truly rich? The Lord is reminding us here that the treasures of the earth break down and wear out and rust away, but the treasures of heaven are imperishable.
True riches are not to be found in the goods provided by this world, but in the riches secured in heaven. The account of Smyrna is an indictment of the American brand of Christianity which places a high premium on comfort and things while neglecting eternal treasures. For many professing Christians it is comfortable to talk about financial matters … interest rates, pension plans, mutual funds. But do they talk as freely and as enthusiastically about the grace of God or the mystery of salvation? Can they speak as knowledgeably about the atonement of Christ or the implications of the 10 commandments?
There are so many who talk about their cars or their homes or the latest restaurant they have been to, but the minute you start talking about the sovereignty of God or the filling of the Holy Spirit or the prophecies of the second coming of Christ in the Old Testament and you’ve lost them. Why is this? Answer: they are not interested in the sovereignty of God. The notion of the power of the Holy Spirit in the human soul doesn’t really push any buttons in their catalog of interesting subjects. They are not really interested in such things.
The church in Smyrna was a church under persecution. “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” (Rev 2:10). It is significant to notice that Christ never shrouds the perils of the Christian faith in rosy hues. “The great Captain of our salvation never keeps back or conceals what those who faithfully witness for Him may have to bear for His name’s sake; never entices recruits into His service, or seeks to retain them under His banner by the promise that they shall find all things easy and pleasant there” (Trench, The Seven Churches, 110).
Troubles come to Christians to deepen their faith and strengthen their endurance and when those things happen in the soul of a child of God, the Lord receives honor because He is prized in the heart of His people above their very lives. And that is how it was for Peter and Paul and Moses and Jeremiah and for every child of God. No persecution could rob them of what they had. They could be robbed of their homes and their possessions, they could be taken from their families, but no hand could take away from them the heavenly treasures God safeguards for His children. The worst that could be done to them was to take away their earthly life, but that was not to take away their life. Their life was hidden with Christ in God (cf. Col 3:3).
Whether God saves us from suffering or whether He sustains us through suffering, the strength of heart in our faith is an unshakable hope that our God is better than life. The mission of our church … Sunday School, worship services, children’s and youth groups, men’s and women’s groups, relationships … is to cultivate such a deep and satisfying relationship with God that, whether living or dying, whether comfortable or miserable. we rest in Him.
Praying, with you, to be rich in faith,