Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
THE SOVEREIGN OVER LIFE AND DEATH ENCOURAGES HIS OPPRESSED PEOPLE IN SMYRNA TO BE FAITHFUL UNTIL DEATH.
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 27:5,6 (Psalm 119:4,9)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
The letter before us today has its setting in "tribulation", persecution - we'll get to the details shortly. We for our part live in a free land; there is no law in our land that penalises us for speaking of our Lord, professing faith in Him, no law that forbids us from going to church. Today a brother in the congregation wishes to profess the faith, and we -like he- have freely come to church. It makes one wonder: why open the Word of God today at Christ's letter to His persecuted church at Smyrna? Does this letter not confront us with circumstances so alien to our situation that we're better off listening to a different part of God's Word?
I chose, brothers and sisters, to read with you a portion of Jesus' words in Mt 10. Jesus told His disciples:
"If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of His household" (vs 25; RSV).
That is to say: since the Jews did call Jesus Christ 'Beelzebul', did claim that Jesus was from hell and treat Him as such, we may be certain that God's enemies will do the same to God's people. For Christ has not come "to bring peace on earth..., but a sword" (vs 34). As the Scriptures elsewhere say:
"Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour" (I Pet 5:8).
This, beloved in the Lord, is the revelation of God: we are intensely hated. "Our sworn enemies, the devil, the world and our own flesh, do not cease to attack us" (LD 52). The question is not whether we experience persecution and hatred (for our senses are very much touched by the fall into sin); the question is whether God says that we're hated and attacked. And that's indeed what He says. So a letter as Jesus sent to Smyrna has much to say to you today, Steven, has much to say to all of us in Kelmscott.
I summarise the sermon with this theme:
THE SOVEREIGN OVER LIFE AND DEATH ENCOURAGES HIS OPPRESSED PEOPLE IN SMYRNA TO BE FAITHFUL UNTIL DEATH.
1. the struggle of the church
2. the identity of her Head
1. The letter of the Lord to His congregation in Smyrna begins with a reference to their poverty. The term used in this letter for 'poverty' leaves no doubt about the fact that we are to understand this poverty in a most literal way; the Christians of Smyrna were as poor as church mice.
Their poverty is actually a remarkable thing. For the city of Smyrna as a whole was prosperous, very prosperous, second only to Ephesus in terms of economic importance in Asia Minor. Like Ephesus, Smyrna was a harbour town attracting numerous merchants. On top of that, the city had a fertile agricultural belt around it. In a word: if you wanted to make it big in this world, Smyrna was the place to be.
Yet the Christians of Smyrna were poor. What happened? This: the Christians were purposely excluded from the plum jobs. Being a Christian meant in Smyrna that you were an outcast, there was no room for you in the economic market. The Smyrnan Christians experienced what it meant not to wear the mark of the beast, not to carry his number. While the city prospered, the town's folk saw to it that money did not quickly roll in the direction of the Christians.
As to why these Christians were barred from public business life, I note two factors related by early church historians.
These two lines -hatred from the Jews and distrust from the other locals- apparently came together in as much as the Jews used the public distrust of the Christians to foment greater trouble for the Christians, even incite persecution. So it was that not all that many years after the Lord Jesus Christ wrote this letter to His church in Smyrna, the authorities of town had the minister of this congregation -his name was Polycarp- burned at the stake. Very telling is the fact that it was the Jews in particular who were so thirsty for his blood; though it was a sabbath day by OT law, the Jews made it their business to find the fuel needed for Polycarp's fire.
It's in the light of that background, beloved, that we are to
read the words of Jesus in vs 9 of His letter to Smyrna. Jesus
mentions their "tribulation" and their "poverty",
and we understand these terms to refer to the hatred and the persecution,
as well as to the economic oppression, these Christians endured.
The times were trying for the Christians of Smyrna, and the future
scarcely looked promising
. Poverty was their portion; it
was a struggle to put bread on the table to feed the family.
Tribulation was their lot; they were hounded by the people of
town and especially by those fanatical Jews. And there was no
end in sight.... Not easy, not at all, to be a Christian. Not
easy, not at all, to profess the faith in such a climate, not
easy at all to speak up in defence of Christ's name
Yes, brothers and sisters, we can understand that in such a situation the temptation was enormous to turn one's back to the faith. Imagine the questions on your minds:
We can imagine the questions , and the pressure these questions place on one's faith! Truly, what good is that article of faith that Christ conquered death when you are yourself being tied to the stake to be burned!? What good does it do to insist that Jesus is Lord when the lords of the earth have you all trussed up? Is the reality not a maddening commentary on the stupidity of what you believe? And does it not all prove that you are being plain pig-headed in insisting that your faith is the true faith? Surely there was but one way for the Christians of Smyrna to have a future, and that was to forsake the church of Jesus Christ, and (re)join the synagogue down the street. In Biblical terms: deny the faith. Make no mistake, beloved: in the face of hunger and persecution, that option is so very tempting!
But what is that option really all about? Jesus says in vs 11: "He who overcomes" -that's he who doesn't give in to the temptation to deny the faith- "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death."
"The second death." We find the term a bit of a riddle. But the apostle Paul had once written to the Romans -and his letters circulated widely through the churches- that the believer has died with Christ to sin, has put to death his old nature, and been raised with Christ to newness of life (Rom 6). The result is that the believer does not die any more in the loaded sense of the word 'death'; that is, the believer is never again separated from the Lord his God. He may die in the sense that his body is parted from his soul, but physical death (and that's what's meant by 'first death') is not an enemy any more since physical death will not separate the believer from his God. So: there is no need to fear those who can kill the body (cf Mt 10:28). That's why Jesus encourages the Christians of Smyrna, in the face of their trials, to perservere; "be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (vs 10).
And what if the Smyrnan Christians are not "faithful until death"? What if they cave in to the pressures of poverty and derision and persecution? Then, beloved, they would set themselves up to die "the second death", ie, being separated from God eternally in hell!
So it is that the options open to the persecuted Christians of Smyrna boil down to one of two alternatives. If they persevere in the faith, they shall continue to be persecuted and so may very well end up one day facing a violent death at the hands of their oppressors: physical death. The alternative is to deny the faith, and then live as an accepted citizen of town. But: then one has denied the Lord, and so Christ will deny you before the Father (Mt 10:33), and that means no forgiveness of sins, no salvation - hell. In other words: spiritual death.
Those, my brothers and sisters, are the options for the Smyrnan Christians: it's either death OR death! Either death in the sense of body being separated from soul or death in the sense of being rejected by God eternally. First death or second death. Death of the body or death of the soul. Physical death or spiritual death. Groaning at the stake or groaning in hell. That's the choice open for these Christians in Smyrna!
And again, beloved, given our human nature, it's so tempting to forget for now about the possibility of suffering the second death (damnation), and instead do what is necessary to escape the first death, to escape being burned at the stake. It's so human to worry more about today than about tomorrow.
It's true: we live in relative comfort, and the threat
of physical death does not hang over our heads so that we need
to contemplate what it means to leave wife and children destitute,
with no one to feed them, to care for them in a hostile society....
But we do understand: it would not at all be easy to accept death
at the hands of persecutors if the result is that we leave our
families fatherless. How tempting, how very tempting it is to
deny one's confession and agree with everybody else....
2 But see: in the midst of this tribulation, the Head of the Church sent a letter to His congregation in Smyrna. In that letter Jesus interacts with their concrete circumstances, and reminds them in their circumstances of who He really is. So He brings the gospel to bear on their circumstances, reminds His people of His glorious promises.
Note the name Jesus gives to Himself. I am, He says, "the first and the last, who died and came to life."
a. "The first and the last." The unbelieving people of Smyrna said: 'Caesar is king, he is the sovereign. All things are from him and through him and to him, he is the first and he is the last!' And the temple he permitted for himself in Smyrna, as well as the persecution he allowed against the Christians, conspired together to prove that Yes, Caesar was king, sovereign, the measure of reality in town.
But Jesus says to His oppressed people: 'the town's folk are wrong, for not Caesar is the first and the last; those names belong to Me. I am the sovereign, all things come from Me and are through Me and are to Me. You are persecuted, you are sorely tempted to choose the second death over the first, but I tell you: I am the first and the last, Sovereign.'
This name "first" and "last" was not unknown
to the Christians of Smyrna. In the Old Testament, the Lord God
had used this name with respect to Himself; we read it from the
prophecies of Isaiah. That reference to Himself as first and
last had been in the context of God's sovereignty, His incomparability.
"Who is like Me?" God had asked. The challenge was:
who can accurately proclaim today what is going to happen tomorrow?
And God's insistence was that He alone could do so, and the reason
is that every creature comes from God and has God's permission
to move; more, every creature moves so that God is glorified.
That's what's caught in that name: "I am the First and I
am the Last; besides Me there is no God" (Is 44:6ff). Such
is God: none is like Him; only God is the First Mover of all that
happens, and only God is the Purpose of all that happens. And
would the people of Smyrna now have the Christians think that
the kings of the earth compare with God?! Says Jesus to
His besieged church: 'Come now, My people, recall what I have
done. Check your history and see My power. Pontius Pilate and
Herod and the Pharisees together thought to put to death Jesus
of Nazareth, and so to get rid of this bothersome sect. But see
here My power; I am the first and I am the last. They put the
Son of God to death alright, but that's because I determined that
the cross was the way to the crown, and so I foreordained that
death! So who is sovereign? Was Pilate on behalf of Caesar?
Come now! Really, who is like Me?! And therefore, O Christians
of Smyrna, it's true that things will get worse for you, but "do
not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer."
It counts for you too: your cross is the way to your crown.
For I am the First and I am the Last. Satan will try to sift
you as the wheat, but know this: in My hands you are safe.'
b. Christ's word for His oppressed church goes further. He has a second name that He deems relevant for the church in Smyrna. Says He: I am also the one "who died and has lived." The reference is of course to the death of the Saviour on Calvary, His burial and His subsequent resurrection from the dead on the third day.
I mentioned already that the church in Smyrna was confronted with that choice of death, physical death or spiritual death, the first death or the second. Now Jesus says to the Christians of Smyrna: 'you face death, but remember this: I have faced it also. I have died. But I did not remain a victim of death, for I rose again; I came to life. And that, My people, means that death is defeated! Remember that prophecy of the Old Testament (it's been fulfilled on Calvary!): "Death is swallowed up in victory" (Is 25:8) and "O death, where is your sting?" (Hos 13:14). Says Jesus: 'You may be confronted by death -that most terrible of enemies- but that enemy is conquered; you have no reason to fear it, for I, I have died and I arose! So the separation of body from soul is not the fearsome monster it used to be; it's now the door to life eternal in God's gracious presence!'
I trust that we appreciate: for the believers of Smyrna this was surely a word of comfort, of encouragement. Here was nothing else than the reassurance -faced with death as they were- that dying was gain, was to "be with Christ" (Phil 1:21ff).
And we understand too: how comforting this promise was for the
persecuted! Christ has overcome death, and so no Christian in
this world need fear physical death at the hand of persecutors;
physical death is the door to life eternal in the presence of
God. Here, then, is incentive to the brothers and sisters of
Smyrna to "be faithful until death." Let the persecution
and the hatred continue: with a Saviour as Jesus Christ the child
of God has nothing to fear. Because of Who Christ is,
because of what Christ has done, those who persevere shall
surely receive "the crown of life", shall "not
be hurt by the second death." Truly, it's a promise and
a perspective that fills the oppressed child of God with hope
and with joy!
Our circumstances today are far different than were those of the brotherhood in Smyrna long ago. But the difference, beloved, is on the surface only; though we are not physically persecuted, we definitely are hated by Satan, and hated with a passion. Equally (and I say it not because I experience it, but I say it simply because God has revealed it) we -like they of long ago- are hated by the world. That's what God has revealed, beloved, and so we are meant to believe it. And in as much as we are diligent in avoiding all sin shall we experience this hatred also. For children can rise against parents when those parents persistently insist on doing God's will (cf Mt 10:35f). And clients can scorn you because you refuse to accept money under the table, refuse to be bribed. And employers do make it difficult for you because you refuse to work on Sunday. Workmates do laugh because you wish no part in foul talk, in nude pin-ups, do deride because you do not tolerate the abuse of God's holy name. The world around us does consider us square because we refuse to dress ourselves and our children as if we are of this world, refuse to accept the musical tastes of this world. Maintaining that antithesis, blindly and humbly doing what God asks without compromise, invariably draws out the derision of the world around us. The Christians of Smyrna experienced it so painfully in a physical way, and many Christians of the world today also experience it so painfully in a physical way. We don't, not in a physical way. But Satan's hatred and the world's hatred are real nevertheless, and in Australia of 1997 the Christian experiences that in a psychological way. Scorn, derision, a lack of promotion, a prejudiced mark at uni: that's the lot of the Christian who is forward about his faith.
Or would you say that you experience nothing of that hatred? Then I need to tell you, beloved, that there is need for self-examination. Christ has promised hatred from the world, has told us that those of His household shall be maligned. Might it be that you escape the scorn of clients because you do accept money under the table, do accept a bribe? Might it be that you escape the derision of your workmates because you participate in their foul talk, tolerate the abuse of God's Name? Might it be that we escape the ridicule of the world because we dress ourselves and our children as if we are part of this world? Make no mistake, my brothers and sisters: the devil hates Christ, and the world does too, and as long as we maintain the antithesis, as long as we blindly do God's will without compromise we are hated also. No, not necessarily burned at the stake as the brethren of Smryna were. Nor imprisoned in some concentration camp as the brethren of China are. There are other ways in which hatred can express itself. I remind you only of the poverty experienced by the faithful of Smyrna, their exclusion from economic activity.
The world hates Christ, and so hates Christ's people also, hates you, Steven, because you profess faith in Christ. Now the question to all of us is this: do we dare to take on our chin the scorn and the derision of the world because of our allegiance to Jesus Christ? Do we dare to put our jobs on the line if the boss asks for conduct contrary to Jesus' commands? See there the instruction for us today in Jesus' letter to His oppressed church in Smyrna! For in their situation of poverty and tribulation, Jesus reveals Who He is, and His identity meant that the Christians of Smyrna were safe only when they clung to Him; no matter what the citizens of town did to them, the Christians would "not be hurt by the second death." That is: they would definitely receive the "crown of life".
And Jesus, beloved, has not changed! Do you dare to take on the chin the derision of your workmates? Do you dare to put your job on the line out of obedience to God? It's ultimately a question of whether you know yourself safe in Jesus' hands! And Who is this Jesus?! He's "the First and the Last," sovereign Lord of all. He "was dead, and came to life," and so even an expression of hatred as radical as killing cannot hurt God's own.
Truly, this is an encouragement we need so much - as you, Steven, profess the faith, as we return to our daily work tomorrow, as we look into the future in our increasingly God-less society. We have so many questions: what will happen to me tomorrow when I confess Christ's name in the workplace? And we wonder: will we experience persecution in time to come? Will our children? Can we keep our place, our job in this society as the years go by and the intolerance for Christians increases? Jesus Christ gives the answer: He is "the First and the Last," the One who "was dead, and came to life." So I and my children are safe with Him always.
And that's incentive to be faithful to the Saviour no matter the reaction of the world or the cost that's involved! Amen