Pastor Scott Andrews | June 19, 2022
We’ve all heard sayings, idioms, that really make no sense. For example, to sweat like a pig, it’s raining cats and dogs, kick the bucket, or break a leg. They make no sense, but we usually know what they mean:
- To sweat like a pig means to sweat a lot.
- Raining cats and dogs means it’s raining a lot.
- Kick the bucket means to die.
- To break a leg means good luck.
Here’s another one that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we sort of know what it means: “This is where the rubber meets the road.” That actually used to be a slogan for Firestone tires – although I think all tires eventually meet the road. It is, in fact, an advertising slogan that first appeared in 1956. But, what does the saying actually mean, or what did it come to mean? We know generally – but look it up, and it means, this is where theory becomes practice, or, when you have to face your challenges. Here’s another definition I like, the point at which things truly become challenging. The saying may be used like this – after all this preparation and practice – tomorrow is where the rubber meets the road – where we put the theory and practice into reality – to see if it pans out – whatever that means.
I believe there come regular tests to see if our Christian faith, what we say we believe that has changed our lives, actually meets the challenges of faith. Where our theory becomes practice. Where our profession becomes real.
I told you recently that since COVID, the largest evangelical denomination has faced a 19% decrease in Sunday morning worship attendance. To be clear, our Christian faith cannot be reduced to worship attendance, but it at least includes that – when believers get together for worship, fellowship, discipleship, service, etc. From the earliest days, the church of Jesus Christ has met on the first day of the week – Sunday, the day of His resurrection, for those and other purposes.
In fact, it’s interesting. In the book of Hebrews, when it began to cost something to name the name of Christ – to be called a Christian could invite persecution – some were considering quitting, returning to Judaism. Abandoning the faith. After all, to gather with the church was to paint a target on your chest. And so the author of Hebrews writes,
23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; [He’s faithful to His promises toward us – He will deliver what He says He will]
24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,
25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Keep the faith – the theory, if you will – without wavering, because God is faithful. But also, let’s keep taking the theory into practice – considering how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. The church at Ephesus had forgotten how to love – so we need to stimulate, provoke one another to love and doing good deeds, so we don’t forget and lose the lampstand.
And I know it’s costing you, but don’t give up meeting together, as is the habit of some, but keep on meeting is the idea, in the face of danger, to encourage one another – another reason for gathering – and all the more, as you see the day approaching. What day is that? The day of the Lord, the return of Christ and all the attendant circumstances. Those circumstances that include increased opposition and suffering, as the book of Revelation tells us. As the going gets tough, the tough get going. It’s where the rubber meets the road.
And if a virus we cannot see that threatens sickness and even death, prevents us from gathering, what will happen when the threat becomes something we can see? Persecution. What, then, will happen to our faith – our practice? Will the 19% become greater? Will the challenges of the end of days separate the professor of Christian faith from the true possessor of Christian faith?
As I’ve said, the book of Revelation was written to encourage us to faithfully persevere in the face of opposition, and the tell us that opposition will become greater as we draw closer to the day – the day of Christ’s return. As we look at our culture, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that persecution and opposition are increasing. Naming the name of Christ is costing us more and more. The question is, what then will we do?
We’ve seen the church at Ephesus, through time, had continued doing good deeds and even persevered, but they had forgotten the love part. Let’s not do that – let’s not forget. Let’s remember our first love – our love for God, for one another, and for the lost. Let’s do the deeds we did at the first, when we wanted to be with one another to learn from one another, to encourage one another, to care for one another. Let’s remember to look for opportunities to share our faith – even though it’s costing more and more in our culture to do so. If we don’t share our faith for fear of rejection or a little ridicule, what will we do when it really costs us?
Which brings us to our text today – the second letter of the seven letters to the seven churches. The first and last letters – to Ephesus and Laodicea, contained the most challenging confrontation and correction from our Lord. The second and the sixth, to Smyrna and Philadelphia, only contain commendation. The middle three, to Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis, contain both – commendation and correction. So trust me when I say, we want to be like Smyrna. Read the text with me – Revelation 2:8-11.
This is the fine print of the Christian faith. Yes, you get sins forgiven, reconciliation with God, heaven, eternal life and blessing. But you also get this – suffering. Philippians 1:29, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in His name, but also to suffer for His sake.”
Can I point out something incredibly important for the evangelical church in America today? Smyrna was steeped in poverty, but Jesus says, they were rich. Laodicea thought themselves rich – and indeed they were materially – but Jesus says, they were blind to their poverty. Chapter 3:17 says it like this, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Here’s the question, who do we want to be like? Materially poor and spiritually rich, or materially rich and spiritually poor?
This is an incredible letter to Smyrna. If there was a church who proved faithful, they did. If there was a church who put theory into practice, they did. If there was a church who met the challenges of faith well, they did. If there was church where the rubber met the road – it was Smyrna. Smyrna’s a weird name – but we should seek to wear the title Smyrnite proudly. Yeah, I made that name up – I actually think they were called Smyrneans. The outline of our text is similar to last week. Remember, I said the seven letters largely had seven characteristics:
- The Angel of the Church
- The Self-Description of Christ
- The Commendation of the Church
- The Correction of the Church
- The Call to Repentance
- The Call to Hear the Spirit
- The Promise to the Overcomers
This letter only has five of those:
- The Angel of the Church of Smyrna (8)
- The Self-Description of Christ (8)
- The Commendation of the Church (9)
- [Instead of the Correction and Call to Repentance, we have] The Encouragement to the Church (10)
- The Call to Hear the Spirit (11)
- The Promise to the Overcomers (11)
Let’s start with the angel of the church of Smyrna. You remember it is my thought since angel in Revelation refers to an angel – a messenger of God, that’s what we have here. In some way, these churches had angels responsible before God for the churches. The point is, the church was ultimately to receive the message from Christ through angelic messengers to His churches.
Smyrna was a port city about 35 miles to the north of Ephesus. It is the only city of the seven that still exists today – it is the modern city of Izmir in western Turkey on the Aegean Sea. It’s actually the third-largest city in Turkey today. Its port was well-protected by its geography. It was known empire-wide for its beauty. Homer was said to be born there. It was a center of import and export, and rivaled Ephesus in size and importance – estimates place the population in John’s day at about 200,000.
The city actually declared its allegiance to Rome before Rome was even an Empire. The city built a temple to Roma in 195 BC, who is the Goddess of Rome – she is the personification of Rome. In 26 AD, competing against ten other cities in Asia Minor, they won the right to build a temple to Tiberius Caesar. So, to say they were passionately committed to emperor worship or the emperor cult would be an understatement. In addition to those temples, they also had temples to honor Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Zeus – plus a few others. Like cities around them, they were a deeply pluralistic society worshiping the Roman gods and emperor.
There was also a large Jewish population there – part of the diaspora. But remember, this was after the Galilean revolt against Rome which lasted from 68 to 73 AD. You’ll remember that’s when the Roman General Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. So the Jews lived in a tenuous state throughout the empire.
Which brings us to the second point – the self-description of Christ. Jesus had called Himself the first and the last when He appeared to John in the previous chapter. Remember, that title appears alongside the Alpha and the Omega in chapter 22. That was a title of deity that Jesus shared with His Father. It speaks of His eternality and sovereignty over all history – since He is before and after all things, He is sovereign over all things, the beginning of all things and the end to which all things point. We’ve just read the whole letter to Smyrna – do you think this was important to a church facing severe opposition because of their refusal to worship pagan gods, because of their refusal to worship the emperor, and therefore because of the promised persecution coming? Jesus says, I’m the first and the last – the only true and living God, and I am in control of all that is happening to you. I know, and I see you.
Not only that, Jesus says, I am the One who was dead and has come to life. He said that in chapter 1, verse 18, “I am the living One; and was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore.” Do you think that was important considering the content of the rest of the letter – that not only was persecution coming, but Jesus calls them to be faithful until death? Do not forsake being the church, even when you face death. Are you kidding me? This is some serious where the rubber meets the road stuff.
Which brings us to the commendation in verse 9. I know, He says. He says that in all the letters, because they are His churches, and He walks among them, intimately aware of their deeds. But here, He doesn’t speak of deeds done, but of deeds done to them. Does that encourage you – that Jesus knows what you endure for His sake?
He lists three things. First, I know your tribulation. It’s a general word for affliction, but for significant opposition or persecution. It speaks of the challenges they face for claiming the name of Christ. As I’ve suggested before – these are not the tribulations of living in a fallen world, but afflictions for the sake of Christ. You see, for them, it cost something to be a Christian – to live like a Christian. Just like I believe it will soon cost us more than it already does.
In our culture, it used to be fine to be a Christian. Oh, people may have wondered why we took a day of our weekend to gather with other Christians. They may have wondered why we didn’t do the fun things they did. They maybe even wondered why we called some things wrong – sinful. But now, we are living in a culture where we are being opposed for holding objections to certain activities – persecuted for calling what the Bible calls sin. For standing up for the lives of the unborn, and refusing to call it healthcare. For standing up for biblical marriage and biblical morality and sexuality. We perhaps used to be called sticks in the mud, old fashioned, out of date. Now we are being called racists and bigots. We used to be a bit out of lockstep with culture, but now we are counter-cultural. What will we do when the tribulation results in personal attack? I’m saying to you, brothers and sisters, that it is coming. (Mohler) What will you do when they accuse you of being immoral, like when they accused the Smynites of being atheists for not worshiping the emperor?
What will we do when it results in economic oppression? You see, the second thing Jesus lists is poverty – most agree poverty as a result of loss of livelihood or income or business because they were Christian. The temptation will be to give in, to hide, to go dark, to be silent, to fly under the radar. Can you think of other idioms? What will we do when it impacts our checkbook balance?
Jesus can’t help Himself – while He encourages them in the next verse, He throws in a parenthetical here – I know your poverty, but the truth is, you’re rich. Oh, not in this world’s goods – not in all they pine for, not in material wealth. But you are rich in spiritual wealth – in the things that matter for eternity. You are laying up treasures in heaven. Oh, you may not have expensive rubber meeting the road, but you are faithful, and richly, spiritually blessed. And you will be rewarded – wait till we get to our last point.
The third thing Jesus lists is blasphemy. That’s the literal word, but perhaps we should think of slander, which is also a meaning of the word. They are slandered – spoken evil against – by whom? By those who say they are Jews and are not. Stop right there. Are they Jews, or are they not? I think they were ethnically Jews, but they were not spiritually Jews. You see, to be spiritually a Jew was to be one of God’s chosen people. To stand with God and His purposes. And here, it was clear, they stood in opposition to God. To Christ and His church.
We remember several verses. The first in Romans 2:28-29, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter…” Paul says a Jew is not one who is simply physically a Jew, but one who is inwardly so.
Then later, in Romans 11, Paul reminds us that the Jews were broken off the olive tree, so that wild branches, the Gentiles, could be grafted in. Yes, Paul also makes clear in that chapter God is not done with the Jews, His chosen people. But the point is, God’s attention is on NT believers – the church – those who have accepted His Son. And these Jews had not.
And then we remember earlier when Jesus was having a conversation with some Pharisees in John 8. They were quite proud of their physical descent from Abraham. But Jesus reminded them, you stand opposed to God’s Christ, you are actually of your father the devil.
Which brings us to the rest of verse 9 in Revelation 2. They claim to be Jews, but they aren’t actually – that is, they may have the physical blood of Abraham flowing through their veins, but these Jews are not My people – because they are slandering My people. As such, they are of the synagogue of Satan – the avowed enemy, the adversary of God – the accuser of God’s people. These Jews were falsely accusing God’s people, just like Satan does – therefore, they’ve earned the right to be called the synagogue of Satan.
How were they doing that? Most agree these Jews, opposed to the Christian faith, were the ones bringing legal charges against believers in Jesus. As you read through the book of Acts, the primary opponents of the Way, of the Christian faith, were the Jews, who refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah. Now, don’t become anti-Semitic with that statement. Jesus was a Jew. The Twelve were Jews. The first believers and church were Jewish. We’re the wild olive branches who have been grafted in. Don’t be arrogant, Paul says in Romans 11. But the point is, these non-believing Jews opposed Christianity, as they had dogged Paul through his missionary journeys.
Now, think of all that – Christ knew of their tribulation, poverty and slander. One author writes, “Also, the three would never be considered ‘strengths’ today but rather ‘problems’ or even ‘tragedies.’ This is because the church today has forgotten the centrality of ‘the fellowship of his sufferings’ (Phil. 3:10) for the early church. Suffering for Christ was a privilege, not just a sorrow.” (Osborne)
Which brings us to Christ’s encouragement to the church in Smyrna, and to us. Are we listening? Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Suffering is coming, persecution is on the rise, we will be more and more opposed for our faith. But do not fear – after all, God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear. And here, Jesus becomes more specific – behold, listen up, the devil (another name for Satan) is about to cast some of you into prison (Nigeria). That likely refers to legal sanction against them. These Jewish opponents will bring accusation against them. Understand, the Jewish religion was tolerated – and for a while, Christianity was tolerated as it was seen as a sect of the Jews. But the Jews opposed Christians because they opposed Jesus. So they made it clear they were not a sect of Judaism, they were their own – false religion. And governmental opposition would begin shortly.
Some of you will be cast into prison. Prison was a bit different than today – today, you go to prison for a time to pay your debt to society. Then, you went for one of three reasons: awaiting trial, to force recalcitrance, or to await execution. Now, don’t miss this – they will be thrown into prison so that you will be tested. That’s passive – someone is doing the testing – but who? Almost everyone agrees, the tester here, to prove the reality of faith – is God Himself. There’s no reason for the devil to test – he simply wants to destroy. But God will test to strengthen and prove the reality of faith. Which means, suffering for the sake of Christ is God’s plan. Yes, it is carried out by Satan and his minions, under God’s control. Because God has your best in mind. He wants to strengthen your faith; He wants to prove your faith genuine.
You will have tribulation for ten days. Lots of discussion about that – most agree ten is a symbolic number in Revelation which speaks of totality and completeness. The idea is, they will be tested, but there is a divinely specified duration of that tribulation. God is in control of the substance and duration of tribulation. It’s a relatively short period of time. It’s longer than seven, but less than twelve.
The encouragement then is to be faithful, even until death. Meaning, some will die, and indeed they did. You see, when Jesus said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me,” He meant it. It meant more than die to yourself and you might experience a little trouble. The cross was a sign of death. But don’t miss the beautiful irony here – you will die for Christ’s sake, and then you will receive the crown of life. Death is not the final answer for believers. God is, and He will grant life – eternal life. The word crown is not diadem which speaks of royalty – it is stephonos – it is the victor’s crown. It was the garland wreath granted to victors of the games – and the games were big in Smyrna. In fact, at the acropolis at the top of Mt. Pagos outside the city, the temples ringed that mount, and it was referred to as the crown of Smyrna. Jesus is saying, that’s nothing – you will receive the crown of life.
Which brings us to our last two points – the call the hear what the Spirit says to the churches – to this church – and the promise to the overcomer. As in all the letters, Jesus ends by saying, he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. What are we supposed to hear? Do not fear the suffering that is right around the corner. If God permits us to live till the coming of Christ, it’s only going to get worse. Don’t fear what man can to you – God is faithfully in control.
Lastly, he who overcomes fear and valiantly faces suffering to the point of death – he will not be hurt by the second death. John will tell us about the second death in Revelation 20 and 21:
It’s first mention is in 20:6 – Blessed and holy is the one who has part in the first resurrection [that is, resurrection of believers at the second coming]; over these the second death has no power.
But what is the second death? Revelation 20:14-15 – Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name what not found in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The first death is our physical death in this life – which remember, we do not fear, because as followers of Jesus – the one was dead and has come to life – we, too, will be brought to life. Remember Jesus’ words to Mary at Lazarus’ death, “I am the resurrection and life. He who believes in me will live even if he dies.”
We need not fear the first death. Christ has defeated death – He owns the keys of death and Hades. We, who were subject to the fear of death all our lives, need be no longer. Paul said, to depart and be with Christ is better by far. And the second death – eternal judgment in the lake of fire has no power over us – because our names are written in the book of life – because of the work of Christ. Be encouraged my brothers and sisters.
So, did suffering come upon the church in Smyrna? Yes, it did. Were they faithful to death? Yes, they were. Let me close by telling you the story of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Although younger, born in 69 AD, he was a contemporary of the Apostle John. He was discipled by John, and appointed by John to be the bishop of Smyrna.
When the persecution of the church reached a fever pitch, he was arrested for his refusal to worship the emperor by burning incense to him. He was taken to the local stadium, where he was commanded to deny his faith in Jesus and declare Caeser as lord. He responded, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never failed me. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior.” They threatened to burn him alive. “You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” You are ignorant of the second death.
At this point, the crowd began to shout, “Away with the atheist!” You see, he was called an atheist because he refused to worship their false gods. He responded by pointing to the crowd, and said, “Away with the atheists.” They then tied him to a post to burn him at the stake. The wood was gathered hastily by the crowds and the Jews. The fire failed to get hot enough – although an eyewitnesses wrote that the flames refused to touch him. Finally, tired of the spectacle, a soldier pierced him with a spear. As he was dying, he said, “I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.” I would say, he was faithful to the point of death. And I believe God will grant us both the grace to die for Him, and to live for Him.