Central Truth: Under pressure, poverty and persecution, the gospel spreads fearlessly and faithfully.
One interesting and enduring truth of the expansion of the church in every century has been that
—under pressure, the gospel spreads.
—under poverty, the gospel spreads.
—under persecution the gospel spreads.
Tertullian, a Christian apologist from the first century living in North Africa, said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The Letter to the Church at Smyrna is a message to persecuted believers living in that city. Of the seven letters, it is the only one that does not contain a reprimand or correction. The persecution they were suffering led them to a purity in their walk with Christ.
“Giving Your All For Jesus” is the call to every follower of Jesus. The famous hymn of decision, “All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give” is our theme song.
- For some “your all” will be PRESSURE to live faithfully in a world that is increasing antagonistic to the Christian message
- For some ”your all” will be POVERTY in living faithfully rather than intoxicated by the desire to acquire more and more and more.
- For some “your all” will be PERSECUTION by those who would rather destroy us than tolerate us.
—Yet people continue to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior in places where such a decision will require giving your all for Jesus. 1 in 9 Christians on the planet today are placing severe persecution—that is 245 million people who know Jesus and who know persecution. There have been more martyrs for the faith in the 20th century than the preceding 19 centuries put together.
—Yet people continue to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The second letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor was addressed the messenger at Smyrna—the city known for its production of myrrh, a spice used to anoint bodies in death. Six of the Seven letters contain a reprimand to that local church; the one church that does not receive a reprimand is the fearless and faithful church at Smyrna.
Revelation 2:8-9. Pressure, Poverty, Persecution
8 “Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna:
“The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says:
9 I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
2:8 Jesus identifies Himself as “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life.”
- He is eternal—He does not grow weary nor faint.
- He is victorious over death.
2:9 “I know your affliction and poverty”
Jesus is familiar with what we are going through. You never have to catch Him up to speed. He is always making intercession to the Father on the behalf of His children.
Despite their affections and poverty and persecution, Jesus tells them “yet you are rich.” You may lack resources; you may suffer in your bodies; you may not always be safe; yet you are rich because of your faithfulness to the God who is always faithful.
The early Christians were viewed by the Roman government as a sect of Judaism so they benefited from the protections provided to Judaism in Roman law. However, the claims of the Jewish Christians and the expanding Gentile Christians that Jesus is the Messiah was blasphemy to the Jews. So the first persecution of the Christians came from the Jews as in the case of Smyrna.
Jesus called the Jews persecuted His followers the “synagogue of Satan.” This is a dramatic linking of the place of worship to the work of Satan.
Jesus not only knows what His people are going through, He also knows what Satan is up to. No attack from the Evil One catches God off-guard. The God of Heaven is faithfully watching over you.
Paul told the Church at Ephesus—first of the seven churches in Asia Minor— to put on the full armor of God so that we can stand against the tactics of the Devil (Eph 6:11). The Devil exist and we need to be on guard. In the movie The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey plays a con artist by the name of “Verbal Kint” who makes a famous quip about being on guard of evil. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Smyrna was not known as an evil city. Like Ephesus it was a port city and center of vibrant trade. It was a center of intellectual thought which produced the Greek poet Homer (2 century AD). There was a temple built to the Goddess of Rome allowing them to enjoy all the privileges of the Roman Empire. The Roman religion was not intolerant; Rome had accepted the pantheon of deities from the Italian tribes and from Asia Minor. Territorial gods such as Saturn in North Africa and Jehovah among the Jews were all accepted as legal religion on the grounds that their rites, even if barbarous, were sanctified by ancient tradition.
So why were the Christians seen as such a threat to society in any generation? Why is 80% of the religious persecution today against Christians?
- They refused to declare supreme allegiance to Rome by saying, “Caesar is Lord.” Their refrain was “Jesus is Lord.” This was an act of civil disobedience.
- When the gospel came to Ephesus, many of the new Christians destroyed their silver idols to Artemis which impacted the economic well being of the craftsmen.
- The missionary zeal of the Christians was seen as a threat as the new movement grew so rapidly, even under pressure.
- Even today, Christianity is growing rapidly in some of the most dangerous areas on the planet—Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and even in the Middle East. In these volatile areas any disruption of the fragile status quo is potentially disastrous and Christians are being persecuted because of the perceived threat. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
- Christianity is often seen as a form of Western imperialism and identified with “the West.” This makes Christians a natural target of nationalist movements seeking to unify the people by excluding minorities.
- Christians are often on the forefront of promoting human right and democracy as well as opposing violence, corruption, and exploitation of the poor. They are often confronted by the government or mob groups who don’t hesitate to use violence and others forms of coercion to get what they want. The Latin American drug lords murder Catholic priests and other Christian leaders because they are the ones defending the rights of the poor.
- The ultimate allegiance of Christians is to the kingdom of God which is not of this world. Therefore, Christians are viewed with suspicion by totalitarian governments in places like China and North Korea.
- Christian theology insists that salvation cannot be found in any other name than the name of Jesus marks Christians as intolerant.
- The acceptance of people regardless of social standing, gender or race makes Christians targets of attacks in India by Hindu radicals who believe that we are disturbing the natural order of things by accepting “untouchables.”
- Christians are persecuted because Christ is persecuted.
Rev. 12:12 Satan “knows that his time is short” and so, unable to get to Christ or His mother, Satan makes war “on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” (12:17). This is the hidden reality behind all persecution. The world and the devil continue to persecute Christ through His people (Acts 9:4-5) just as Christ said they would: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). Under pressure, poverty, and persecution, the gospel spreads fearlessly and faithfully.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that the real enemy ultimately is not the terrorist with the gun or the bureaucrat with the agenda. They need our prayers and our love. The real enemy is Satan. If we forget that and believe that people are our true enemies, then we will hate our neighbor and imperil our mission as followers of Jesus.
- Another reason for persecution is that the light of God shines through His people, not only showing others the way to salvation but also revealing their bondage to sin. 1 Peter 4:1-4 “Therefore since Christ suffered in th flesh, arm yourselves also with the same resolve—because the One who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin [direct correlation between persecution and purity/holiness]—in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will. For there has already been enough time spent in doing the will of the pagans: carrying on in unrestrained behavior, evil desires, drunkenness orgies, carousing, and lawless idolatry. In regard to this, they are surprised that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation—and they slander you.” 1 Peter 4:12-19 “Dear friends, when the fiery ordeal arises among you to test you, don’t be surprised by it, as if something unusual were happening to you. In stead, as you share int eh sufferings of the Messiah rejoice, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of his glory. If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. None of you, however, should suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a meddler. But if anyone suffers as a Christi he should not be ashamed, but should glorify God with that name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God? And if the righteous is saved with difficulty, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? So those who suffer according to God’s will should, in doing good, entrust themselves to a faithful Creator.”
Then why aren’t we experiencing more persecution? Perhaps it is because the light of our witness is dim.
Nik Ripken of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention conducted an interview of 600 believers in 72 countries. Why are you being persecuted? “Believers are suffering because of evil’s response to their positive witness.”
Perhaps one reason we are not suffering more persecution is that we have separated our witness from the world around us. Many of us do not suffer much indicates that we are much too compromised with our world. The more we integrate our faith into every area of life, then the more we will begin to encounter antagonism.
Revelation 2:10-11 Don’t be Afraid; Be Faithful
10 Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have affliction for 10 days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
11 “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.
2:10 “Don’t be afraid”
“ten days” is a round number that represents a measured or very brief period of time. “This too shall pass.”
Psalm 30:5 “Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.” Whatever pressure you are under, whatever poverty you are enduring, whatever persecution you are suffering, this too shall pass.
The time of persecution is short; the duration of joy is forever.
“Be faithful until death” For many the persecution will culminate in their own execution.
“Crown of life” the victory crown of a Olympic winner.
2:11 The Challenge and the Promise
Challenge: “listen to what the Spirit says”—hear and obey
Promise: “The victor will never be harmed by the second death”
The second death is referring to the torments of living in a final separation from God. You will live with God forever.
How should we respond?
- Increase the light in our lampstand. Be a positive witness. Clearly proclaim the gospel with boldness and live a life reflecting the character of God.
- Renew our faithfulness to the covenant God made with us when we received Him. Communion is that opportunity to affirm our faithfulness to the God who is always faithful to us.
- Pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters. Open Doors USA was founded by Brother Andrew. Open Doors produces an annual Watch List of the top 50 nations persecuting Christians. North Korea has been number 1 for 18 consecutive years. Afghanistan is number 2. Asia Minor in ancient times is now modern Turkey. Turkey is on the list of the top 50 nations persecuting Christians. Brother Andrew emphasizes, “Our prayers can go where we cannot…there are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray.” Let us pray for one another that under pressure, poverty, and persecution, we would not be afraid and remain faithful.