The Poor But Rich Church

June 28, 2015 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos

   

We continue our study of the Seven Churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Last time we looked at the church at Ephesus, which was an orthodox but loveless church. Today, we are going to look at the second church that Jesus addresses which is the church at Smyrna. This church suffered much for its faith in Christ to the extent that it became a very poor church even though it was dwelling in a very wealthy city.

  Most of the churches in our country are not experiencing this kind of suffering but in many parts of the world, many believers still do suffer severely because of their faith in Christ. Reports from different organizations such as Voice of Martyrs, World Evangelical Fellowship, Human Rights Without Frontiers, etc., show that Christians are still the most persecuted faith group in the 21st century.  One agency reports, “approximately 10 per cent of the 2 billion Christians in the world suffer persecution which included beheadings, torture, rape, kidnappings, mass killings, forced starvation, imprisonment and even crucifixions. Last year alone, sources indicate that an estimated 165,000 Christians died because of their faith. (See http://www.saintanthonyofpadua.net/messaggero/pagina_stampa.asp?R=&ID=118).  

Today we are going to see the encouragement our Lord gives to churches and individuals who continue to suffer as Christians in Smyrna did because of their faith in Him.

  To guide us in our study, we are going to follow an outline similar to our previous study when we looked at the letter of Christ to the church of Ephesus. First, let’s look at …

I.           The church addressed

The city of Smyrna was regarded by ancient writers as the most beautiful city in Asia and one of the most prosperous also. Smyrna was also noted as a center of learning especially in science and medicine. It boasted a famous stadium, library, and public theater (the largest in Asia).   Although many considered Smyrna to be the ideal city on earth, at the end of the first century, life for Christians in Smyrna was extremely difficult and dangerous. We will see why in a little while when we look at Christ’s diagnosis of the church.   We do not know when the church was first founded at Smyrna because this church is never mentioned except in the book of Revelation. Probably, it was during Paul’s third missionary journey in A.D. 53-56 when it was established because in Acts 19:10, we read that "all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks."   Smyrna is now known by it's Turkish name, Izmir, and it still has a Chrisian church.  

II.       A description of Christ

  As in all of Christ’s letters to the Seven Churches, Christ first gives an appropriate description of Himself before expressing His concerns about a particular church. Here we see two descriptions of Christ, which are taken from chapter 1.  
  1. First, our Lord Jesus identifies himself as “the First and the Last.”
  God used this phrase as a title for Himself in the Old Testament to show that he is the eternal God who calls into existence things that did not exist.
  • Is 48:12-13 “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. 13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together.”
  • Is 41:4 Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he.
  Because Jesus uses the expression the First and the Last for Himself, He is making Himself equal with God in His nature. Like His Father, He too is the eternal, infinite God, who was already in existence at the beginning of all things, and who will continue to exist after all comes to an end. Like His Father, Jesus has the power to call non-existent things into existence. He has power to direct all of them to accomplish His intended end. He has power to do with them whatever He wants.  
  1. Second, our Lord identifies himself also as the One who died and came to life.
  This second description of Christ implies that the eternal God became man and died and came back to life.   Peter said an astounding statement in Acts 3:15 about what happened to Jesus. He says, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. Jesus is the author of life and the eternal God and yet He became fully human and underwent the agony of death as a perfect sacrifice for sin, and then was raised from the dead.   The two descriptions in Revelation 2:8 highlight two things about Christ: His divine nature and His work that He accomplished on earth. Both of these things are especially relevant to the believers in Smyrna. As an eternal and powerful Savior He sovereignly and providentially arranges all the things that happen in their lives. No one can touch them or take their lives apart from Christ’s permission. And even if they were killed, their enemies do not have the last word regarding their fate. As Christ experienced death and rose in triumph over it, He guarantees the martyrs of Smyrna that they too, will rise from the dead. What great comfort and encouragement these descriptions of Christ must have been to these suffering believers!

III.    Christ’s diagnosis of the church

  As we have seen before, nothing escapes the vision of the glorious Lord. He says, “I know.” Christ knows everything there is to know about His people in Smyrna.   What strikes me about this knowledge of Christ is that although surely He also knows about all their flaws and sins of these believers in Smyrna since they were not perfect, it was so kind of our Lord not to mention them. Instead, He highlights the good things that He knew about them. He does not mention anything negative thing about them. What a gracious and merciful Savior we have.   I want you to look at the word “your.” This pronoun in the Greek is singular. I think what the Lord is doing is that He is fully aware of the tribulation and poverty each Christian in Smyrna is going through.   The Lord mentions three things that He fully knows.  
  1. First, He knows their tribulation. (“I know your the tribulation.”)
  The Greek for “tribulation” (thlipsis) refers to intense pressure, suffering, affliction, trouble, or distress, which burdens the spirit. There are several reasons for their tribulation:  
  1. The citizens of Smyrna had been fanatically devoted to Rome. They were the first city to build a temple that was dedicated to the worship of Rome. They worshiped Dea Roma, a female deity who personified the Roman state.
  2. Smyrna also became the leading center for emperor worship. Under Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96), emperor worship was made compulsory for all Roman citizens. Each year every citizen had to burn incense on the altar of Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord.” After which, he was issued a certificate. To be without a certificate, as must have been the case for Christians faithful to Christ, meant death.
  3. The residents of Smyrna also worshiped all sorts of gods like Zeus, Apollo, Asclepius, Aphrodite, and many more. The total rejection of the pagan idols by Christians along with their worship of the invisible God, caused them to be accused as “atheists.” Much of Smyrna’s social life revolved around pagan worship, and Christians were viewed as antisocial for refusing to participate. When bad things happened in the lives of the people or to the city, it was easy for the citizens of Smyrna to blame the Christians. The superstitious pagans thought that they were being punished by the gods who were being insulted by the Christians who refused to worship them.
 
  1. Second, our Lord also knows their “poverty.”
  The Greek word here for “poverty” is interesting. There are two words for poverty. One refers to being poor but still has the capability of providing for oneself. Another word, which is the word used here, refers to extreme and complete poverty so that a person is helpless and needs to beg in order to survive. This was the condition of the believers in Smyrna. It seems that their poverty reached to a point that the believers had to depend on the kindness and compassion of other believers such as perhaps those from Corinth or other places in order to survive.   Why was this church so poor in such a prosperous city? Perhaps because of the fanatic devotion of the residents of Smyrna to emperor worship and other forms of idol worship, which was part of every aspect of their social lives. This made it extremely difficult for the Christian to make a living, and thus many were economically poor.   Perhaps the believers refused to make statues, grottos, curtains, dresses, or altars for the gods; they refused to offer sacrifices before the games; they refused to produce music or art in honor of the gods; they had to limit the social interactions of their children for fear of being influenced by their godless neighbors. All these as well as many other opportunities for economic advancement were limited because to be involved in them would have meant compromise and unfaithfulness to Christ. Hence many of them were poor and so they had no choice but to depend on other believers for support. Perhaps some of them may also have been the victims of mob violence and looting.  
  1. Third, our Lord knows fully what their opponents were doing.
“I know… the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”   Smyrna had a large Jewish community. This community claimed that “they are Jews,” meaning that they were physically Jews, descendants of Abraham, and had a covenant relationship with God. However from God’s point of view they did not have a legitimate claim on that name because they did not believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and did things that were contrary to God’s will.   Like the Jews who were confronted by Christ in John 8:31–47, the Jews of Smyrna who slandered the Christians did not have Abraham but the devil as their father.  
  • John 8:39–44 The [Jews] answered [Jesus], “ Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “ If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “ We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father —even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “ If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
  These Jews viewed the Christians at Smyrna as heretics of the worst sort, deserving ridicule and rejection. And so they used malicious lies and repeatedly informed against Christians or incited the local governor to attack them.   MacArthur: “Unbelieving Jews commonly accused Christians of cannibalism (based on a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper), immorality (based on a perversion of the holy kiss with which believers greeted each other), breaking up homes (when one spouse became a Christian and the other did not, it often caused conflict), atheism (because Christian rejected the pagan pantheon of deities), and political disloyalty and rebellion (because Christians refused to ffer the required sacrifices to the emperor). Hoping to destroy the Christian faith, some of Smyrna’s wealthy, influential Jews reported those blasphemous, false allegations to the Romans.”   One famous case is that of Polycarp who had been bishop of Smyrna for many years. Polycarp, was martyred in the stadium at Smyrna on February 22, A.D. 156 for his refusal to deny that Jesus is Lord. As he was driven to the arena, two of the city officials, who had respect for him because of his age and reputation, tried to persuade him to comply with the demand to honor Caesar. “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and burning incense … and saving yourself?” they asked. Polycarp refused. Later, in the arena, the proconsul gave him the choice of cursing Jesus’ name and living or confessing His name and dying. He remained faithful to Jesus by saying, “For eighty-six years I have been [Christ’s] slave, and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” Because Polycarp refused to call Caesar “Lord,” the proconsul immediately sentenced him to be burned at the stake. The record indicates that the Jews were foremost in gathering wood for the fire. Even though it was the Sabbath, they deliberately carried wood and violated the law.   Although the hostile Jews of Smyrna thought that they were real descendants of Abraham, Jesus said that they were, in fact, “a synagogue of Satan.” Regardless of their national descent, they had become, by their bitter opposition to the church and its message, an assembly carrying out the lies and murderous activities of Satan.   Maybe the reason they were called to be “a synagogue of Satan” is because the hostility of the Jews was actually inspired by Satan and maybe because the persecution did not come as sporadic acts but as something that the leaders of the synagogue deliberated on and planned. Perhaps in their meetings in the synagogues, the rabbis continually slandered the Christians from their pulpits. They may have sent official letters to the local authorities of Smyrna that were lies so that they would go against the Christians and threaten them with death.   The believers in Smyra have been going through severe tribulation; they were materially poor; they were continuously being slandered by Jews, and they were also objects of Satan’s severe attacks. And yet Jesus said but you are rich.”   They had all that really mattered. They had salvation, holiness, grace, peace, fellowship, a sympathetic Savior and Comforter, a living and sure hope, and great eternal rewards.  
  • James 3:5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
  The church at Smyrna was a rich church spiritually, in contrast to the church at Laodicea, which was economically rich but spiritually poor (Rev. 3:17 - For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.)   Christians have forgotten this outlook of life. They have bought into the world’s mindset that if you are a Christian you are going to be healthy, wealthy and successful in life. They have forgotten God’s perspective of Christians in this world. We are aliens in this world. God did not intend that life is going to be easy and comfortable in this world. We have a better possession. We are looking forward to another kingdom. We may be living in this world but we do not belong to it.

IV.      Words of exhortation

  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.   To encourage them to persevere and to remain faithful the Lord revealed several things:  
  1. Jesus commands them literally to, “Stop being afraid.”
 
  • Jesus had counseled his disciples, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28).
  • Yet as the time approached, believers needed to be encouraged, lest the threat of martyrdom would cause them to give up their faith in Christ.
 
  1. He encourage them by revealing to them ahead of time that some would be imprisoned because of the work of the devil.
  The Christians in Smyrna must be fully aware that they are fighting a spiritual war in which they confront the devil. Hence, they are told to be alert, for the devil will incite the authorities so that some people of the congregation will be imprisoned with the distinct possibility of being put to death. This will strike fear into the hearts of the believers, who can expect to endure confiscation of property and good, extreme poverty, and slander.  
  1. They are going to go through tribulation for a short time, for 10 days.
  EBC: “Ten days” may denote ten actual days or constitute a Semitism for an indeterminate but comparatively short period of time (cf. Ne 4:12; Da 1:12).  
  1. Some of them will even have to die for their faith.
  If they think that their situation is already bad, with tribulation, poverty, and slander, it will get worse. Some of them will even die.  
  1. They are to remain faithful unto death and they will receive a great reward.
Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.   NICNT: The reward for faithfulness is the crown of life. The crown that is promised here is not the crown (diadēma) worn by kings, but the wreath or garland (stephanos) that was awarded to the victor at the games. Its value lay not in the actual crown that will adorn the head but perhaps in what it symbolized.   NTCS: The phrase are “the crown of life,” probably was idiomatic—it occurs also in James 1:12 —and can be translated “the crown, that is, fullness of life.” It is emblematic of the “highest joy and gladness and of glory and immortality.” If the saints in Smyrna pay with their life for the testimony of Jesus, they will receive imperishable life in eternal glory.

V.         A command to hear what the Spirit says to the churches

  11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.   As we learned in the Lord’s command to the Ephesian church, shows that this letter is not addressed only to the congregation at Smyrna but to all the churches, so that the letter with the others is a universal message.

VI.      A promise to the overcomer

The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. ’   Overcomers are promised that they will not in any way be hurt by the second death. As we have learned before, the overcomers do not refer to a special group of people. This is not something that only the martyrs could attain to. “Overcomers” refers in general to all believers. And all believers are assured that they will not be hurt by the second death.”   To stress the point, our Lord uses the strongest negative the Greek language can express for the word translated “not.” Literally the statement reads: “The One  who is overcoming  not  not  be injured.”   The first death refers to one’s physical death; the second death is to be forever separated from God and suffer never-ending punishment in the lake of fire. (Rev 20:14; 21:8)  
  • Rev 20:14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
 
  • Rev 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
  Let me close by just highlighting some points in our study that will help us how to survive and overcome when we are face to face with a situation that is dangerous and even lead to our death because of our faith in Christ.   So many believers all over the world are suffering because of their faith in Christ. Many Christians in different parts of the world are still being persecuted. (See pics). If the Bangsamoro Basic Law is passed, it will difficult for missionaries to evangelize Moslems. LGBT groups because of our stand against homosexuality. LGBT group want the anti-discrimination law bill to be passed which will force everyone to yield to their agenda. Christians will be ridiculed as being ignorant, narrow minded, proud, stupid if they do not allow gay marriages or accept homosexual lifestyle. We love gay people but we hate their sin, whatever it may be. Our government will make laws that will make it difficult for Christians to follow God’s word and will cause persecution of Christians. What a powerful encouragement we have here from our Lord. One day, some of us here will have to remember this teaching. I may have to remember this. Some of you missionaries will have to remember this.  
  1. Remember your great Savior.
  2. Christ is the first and the last. Christ will have the last word.
  3. Christ went through death before us and triumphed over death and came to life. So will all His people overcome death.
  4. Christ knows. He knows your tribulation and your poverty. He knows what your persecutors are doing to you. He is not unable to sympathize with your weakness and trouble. He is near and he knows. Be thankful that he knows and cares and carries and will save. Don't be angry at God that sometimes He will allow His children to die in the hands of their enemies. Remember what happened to Stephen. Remember what happened to all of the apostles. Remember what happened to these believers in Smyrna. But don’t forget, Christ knows. Find comfort in the fact that He is the first and the last, the one who died and rose again.
 
  1. Remember your real enemy.
Being aware of our true enemy will deliver us from being bitter towards people. We will be reminded to rely on our spiritual weapons in fighting our spiritual battles. We will not give up on praying for persecutors, and loving them. We will continue to have compassion and show kindness to those who are blinded and have become instruments of Satan.  
  • Eph 6:12-13 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
  • 1Pe 5:8-9 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
 
  1. Remember your true riches.
  • You are rich even in poverty or in prison, or even in death. If you are children of God, then you are heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ... the sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:15-18). You are rich!
  • You will receive a crown of life. Be faithful unto death and you will receive a crown of life. (Piper said, “When the fight is fought and the race is run and you die at the finish line, the wreath that will be put on your head will be the crown of everlasting life―no more pain, nor more slander, nor more shame, no more tears, no more depression, no more frustration and discouragement. Only life and light and joy―and God forever.”)
  • You will not be hurt by the second death, that is, the lake of fire (Rev 20:14). There is something worse than death, namely, the second death. God did not promise to spare us from the first death, or the pain that leads to it. But He promised to rescue us from the second death.