The End? Faithful until death.

This post is the fourth in a series through the book of Revelation.  The link below takes you to a video recording outlining the post.

How does one endure hardship? And why? Why does God allow his people to undergo seasons of suffering? And where is God when it hurts? These are some to the questions that Jesus answers in the Revelation, a circular letter written by the apostle John to seven congregations in Asia Minor during the tyrannical reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92).

St_Polycarp_of_Smyrna
Polycarp, Pastor at Smyrna (69 – 155 AD)

“Eighty six years I have served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? …You threaten me with fire that burns only for an hour… but you are ignorant of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. What are you waiting for? Bring on what you will!” 

These were the last words St Polycarp, a famous martyr during another wave of heightened Roman persecution, revealing the grit and the attitude of the church in Smyrna.  Polycarp was a pupil of the Apostle John, and probably the “angel of the church” (messenger / pastor) in Smyrna whom Jesus was addressing in Revelation 2:8-11.

Smyrna, present day Izmir in Turkey, printed coins which claimed it was “the biggest and most beautiful and city in Asia.”  This coastal city was prosperous because of the trade routes and its natural beauty.  The city was filled with magnificent temples and statues – a number of these are well preserved today.  The statue of Bacchus (Roman) or Dionysus (Greek), god of wine and immoral reveling, tells us much about the culture of the day.  So also the statue Cybele, mother of the gods, reveal that in this city women were honoured or even venerated  within certain people groups.  The citizens of this Greek city were loyal to Rome, dedicating a temple to the goddess Roma around 195 BC.  It also had a temple preserved for the Imperial Cult, dedicated to the worship of the emperor.

collage_Smyrna

Persecuted by the Jews. At the end of the first century (AD) Smyrna boasted a large community of Jews, bolstered by the migration of Judeans after the destruction of Jerusalem during The Jewish War (a major rebellion against the Roman Empire, 66 AD – 73 AD). These Jews were especially hostile to Christians – in part because during the siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) Christian Jews fled the city (prompted by a prophetic Word from the Lord), just before the total destruction of the city and its temple. Also, the Jews viewed the worship of Jesus as an abomination.  These Jews were often the first to hand known Christians over to the Roman authorities for punishment.

Poor Christians. In this city, as in the wider community, Christians were often excluded from the formal employment sector because of the refusal to partake in the worship of the gods of the guilds (first century trade unions).  In this pagan society each guild had its god(s) who demanded tribute in exchange for prosperity.  Since Christians refused to worship any other gods, conversion implied the end of the careers.  The only jobs they could take were for the “cursed” in society: garbage removal, sewerage cleaning, burial of the dead, etc.  In the early Church therefore, being Christian was synonymous to being poor.

The letter to Smyrna follows the same structure as the other letters: opening with a unique and personal Revelation of Christ to them, it follows with a commendation, a charge, then a warning and finally a promise of reward.  However, note that this church receives no condemnation or correction from the Lord as the others.  What an inspiration!

Revelation of Christ (2:8).  Christ reveals himself to this suffering community of believers as “The First and the Last” the Sovereign Lord over all creation, the Lord of Heavens’s Armies (Isaiah 44:5-6).  He is indeed Sovereign over Emperor Domitian who claimed to be “king of kings and Lord of lords” – yes, He is even greater than the mighty Roman army!

But Christ further reveals himself as “He who died and yet lives”, as the One who conquered death itself – he did not avoid it, but endured and overcame it.  By revealing himself in this way to these persecuted believers, Christ sets the tone for the rest of the letter.  He comforts them that even if he does not save them from execution, death is not the end of their lives – as it was not the end of his.  He lives forever, and they in him.

Commendation (2:2-3).  As to the Ephesians, Christ commends the church in Smyrna for their faithful works – how they represent him well, even through the tribulation, in spite of their poverty, and under the incessant slander of the vengeful Jews.  We can almost hear Jesus applauding them for their steadfast devotion to him in this harsh environment.

The hostility from the Jews in Smyrna is evident by Christ’s phrasing “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Contextually, he states that even though these Jews read the Torah, they are no different from those who worship at the Imperial temple or even Satan himself! Paul clarified that a true Jew is not one by birth or circumcision, but one “inwardly, brought about by the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit” (Rom 2:29). The church are God’s true Jews, God’s chosen people.

As mentioned above, Christ has no correction, no condemnation for this congregation.  He praises and encourages them to keep on doing the good works they are doing.  Their suffering is not a result of their flaws of faithlessness.  Why then do they suffer?

Exhortation and warning (2:10). Before he reveals something of the reason for their suffering, Christ warns them that they “are about to suffer (more).”  Things will not get easier – it will get worse.  This is never good news! But being forewarned is being forearmed – they can strengthen their hearts for what lies ahead.

Christ continues: “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” They are looking towards a season of heightened persecution that involves imprisonment.  (In the Roman world, life in prison life was harsh, involving torture, withholding basic needs like food and bedding; friends and family on the outside had to care for the inmates).

But Christ’s good news is that this season will be relatively short. “Ten more days” of hardship is not to be read literal in this apocalyptic genre; rather, it speaks of a full measure.  Measuring what?  Their devotion to Christ, the authenticity of their faith. Like Peter, Jesus tells them that this season of “testing”, this fiery trial they are about to enter, is to proof “the genuineness of (their) faith.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Christ says the devil will throw them in prison – but we know that Roman soldiers will execute that command.  But the suffering does the testing of the faith – will they remain true to Christ during this season?  This points back to the drama in the life of Job (chapter 1) – the faithful worshiper whom God boasted about, and whom Satan accused was not true in heart.  The Father smiled and said “test him”, and the devil had power to take all he had, even laid sickness on him.  But poor, worn out Job refused to turn his back on God – although he could not understand why God could allow this.  In the end, Job’s faith was honoured by God and his faithfulness rewarded (chapter 42).

Christ is saying to the church in Smyrna, “As Job’s suffering by the hand of the devil proved his devotion to God, so the devil was granted permission to test some of you for a short season to prove the veracity of your faith”.

Christ promises a reward to those who remain faith until the end: “the crown of life.”  The Olympian golden wreath, “The Crown of Life”, was given to the victors in these Greek Games as an prestigious honour.  This was the ultimate award to victors, and Christ the True Emperor promises to bestow this reward on those who remain faithful until the end.

Later in the book of Revelation we will see how martyrs who remained faithful until death share in the honour of Christ, the Lamb who was slain as to witness to the Kingdom of God.

Promise (2:11).  The letter ends with a promise – not just to Smyrna but “to all who hear” where this letter was circulated: The one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.”  Even though you might die and be hurt during this season of severe persecution, you will not suffer a second death – you will be spared from the Great Judgment.

But this promise is “to those who overcome” – overcome what? Overcome the fear of death, the fear of suffering, the love for this life.  They are charged to endure and overcome the Devil and his Beast Rome, his Prostitute Babylon, and his False Prophet (the many pagan religions).  Overcome the intimidation of the greatest threat the Beast of Rome could bring: death.  Overcome the lure of an easy, painless life of pleasure like all those who bow to the Devil in Babylon living.  Overcome the deception of the False Prophet and his false religions that says there are other ways to true goodness and peace.

And we read how some have overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.”  And by the way in which their pastor Polycarp died, we can see that this church took the warning and exhortation by heart.

Bringing it home. suffering

Like the pagan world into which John wrote Revelation, our Western Christendom believes that prosperity is a sign of God’s approval of us.  Likewise we think that when suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure and that his blessing is removed from us.  The letter to Smyrna brings Job’s life lesson to us: that hardship is a test of our faithfulness to Christ (do I only worship Him when all goes well?), and that he rewards faithfulness to the end with the Crown of Life.

Secondly, we read that suffering will come, and we need to ready our hearts by knowing it is but for a brief moment, and our faithfulness is seen and will be rewarded by Christ.

I pray this message helps your perspective on your own seasons of hardship, and gives strength to your heart – as it was meant to do for the church in Smyrna.

 

Get up! Encourage yourself

“Wherever you go, there you are.”  Grin or laugh about the silly statement, but it is a truth with significant consequences.  The older we get the more we realize that we cannot run away from ourselves – the painful or shameful memories of past failures and disappointments with oneself, our emotions or our own shortcoming – because “wherever you go, there you are.”  Sadly we can’t outrun ourselves.  Where you go, these aspects of your life follow you.

wherever you go there you are

But we also realize that the people in our lives come and go because we move on, because we hurt or get hurt, or because inevitably our loved ones pass away.  So apart from the constancy of God in our lives, only “you are wherever you go” – no one else.  Good or bad – this truth requires some reflection and response.

Sooner or later in life you will find that you are left to face a big, troubling situation all by yourself.  With no-one else to spur you on, you will need to encourage yourself in God.

ENCOURAGE YOURSELF IN GOD

Although he did not live an isolated life, David had to face many critical situations alone with his God.  In 1 Samuel 30 we find David at a very vulnerable position in his life: he and his group of mercenaries (all refugees from Israel) just returned to their refugee-town of Ziklag after being rejected by the Philistines to participate in war on Israel.  As this agitated group of warriors returned to their hometown they found it plundered by a band of Amalekites who left with all their possessions and loved ones.  The historian records that David and the people who were with him wept until they had no more strength to weep… And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters.” (v3-5)

David was at the end of himself, and so were all the soldiers with him.  They have been living with the Philistines for the last 16 months as foreigners far away from family and familiarity.  They were tired and without income.  The last bit of comfort were their homes, family and community – now this too was taken away.  They worried what those savages would do to their loved ones.  The anguish was great and brought David to an all-time low – it seemed as though God had rejected him.

But our shepherd-king knew his God, and strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” (v6) David knew he needed courage to go on, and he knew where he would get it.  Better yet – he knew from WHOM he would get courage – “the God of Encouragement and Endurance.” (Romans 15:5)

How did David encourage himself in the Lord his God?

  1. THE DISCIPLINE OF PRAISE

worship_1I bet that this psalmist sang a song that he wrote just over a year earlier, after God had delivered him from Abimelech the Philistine King (Psalms 34).  In that song David vowed to “bless the LORD at all times (verse 1) – in all circumstances, good or bad.  Why? Because the Lord is always God, always good.  Then he vowed “his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (verse 1) – leaving no space for negativity, grumbling, complaining, fearful or hopeless confessions.  David’s mouth was dedicated to speaking of God’s power and goodness – he therefore his heart was encouraged to move on in faith.

  1. REMIND YOURSELF HOW BIG AND CLOSE GOD IS

who-is-god1

This discipline of praise lead David to magnify the LORD, and …exalt his name” (verse 3).  Is it possible (or even necessary?) to make God bigger than he is?  No.  God’s magnitude will not change with David’s praises – but when you tell God of his rehearse his great attributes and benevolent, righteous character, your perspective of our circumstances does change.   By making God bigger, you make your problems smaller.  You see life from God’s perspective, and that makes your troubles seem smaller.  When we praise God we remind ourselves that God can make a way where there seems to be no way – even in this hopeless situation we now face.  That reminder stirs hope, the confidence that this troubling situation will “work together for the good” (Romans 8:28) and that God “will make a way” where it seems impossible (Isaiah 43:19).  Hope stirs courage – it gives strength to the heart.

  1. REMIND YOURSELF OF WHAT GOD HAS DONE

Then, in the praises, David reminds himself of how God answered and delivered (verse 4) him in the past.  He probably recalled how the Lord saved him from the lion and the bear while he was watching his father’s sheep, and how the Lord gave him victory over the giant Goliath and later as captain in Israel’s army. He probably recalled how the Lord had delivered him many times from the hand of the jealous King Saul and the barbarians he fought as mercenary.  David truly experienced how the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (verse 18)

This gave David strength to get up from the pit of despair, to get out of his raided house, face the angry mob of mighty men outside and encourage them to pursue their enemies!

  1. WAIT ON THE LORD FOR INSTRUCTION

wait_on_Lord

But David was wise enough to not act in presumption.  David knew how to wait on the Lord [to] strengthen your heart” (Psalm 27:14), and that it requires patience and discipline until God gives the go-ahead. The historian records that before David got up to pursue the band of Amalekites he inquired of the LORD, ‘Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?’ [God] answered him, ‘Pursue, for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue’” (1 Samuel 30:8).  Only then did David encourage the men with this prophesy of success, turning their hopeless frustration into hopeful fortitude.

David and his men were so invigorated by this encouragement from God that they pursued the Amalekite army for two days and then engage them in combat from twilight until the evening of the next day” (verse 17).  A promise from God gives one strength to go on.

A NEED FOR ENCOURAGEMENT

Had David not leaned the discipline to encourage himself in God, his story might have ended in this chapter.  But he gained the necessary courage to press on in the presence of God.  Not only did David himself benefit from his self-encouragement: his army of mighty men got turned around from self-pity to strength, their wives and children got rescued, and everyone was prospered through this pursuit to such an extent that David even had wealth to share with the tribal leaders in Israel – the very thing that turned their hearts and attention to him and invite him to return from exile and receive his kingship.  All because David could encourage himself in the Lord his God.

Can you identify with David’s feelings of frustration, loss and despair?  Then follow his example: shut the door to all the noises and demands, praise God and remind yourself how powerful and close he is, and what he has done for you and others1 in the past. Then wait patiently on him for direction, and see how the Lord “encourages your heart and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:17)

You’ll be surprised to find that – like for David – self-encouragement not only changes your mood, but your circumstance and the lives and destinies of those around you.  After all, what else would you expect from a meeting with Allmighty God?

 

Footnote

  1. When one is in despair it is often difficult to remember good times and breakthroughs of the past. I find it helps to rehearse and reflect in prayer on what God had done for others as recorded in Scripture. I would recall Gods saving intervention in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Gideon, David, Daniel etc… Their life stories as recorded in the Bible give me courage in my times of difficulty.  This is what Paul referred to when he wrote “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”  Try this.

It took ten plagues…

It took ten plagues for God to deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt.  I remind myself of this truth often.  Imagine with me: Moses meets God at the burning bush, takes off his shoes and falls on his face in fear of this Great I Am.  God sends him to Pharaoh to command the release of his people (he tries to get out of the job, unsuccessfully).  (See Exodus 4, 7)

Moses walks into Pharaoh’s palace (where he grew up and from where he fled some 40 years earlier) and stands face to face with the ruler of Egypt who believes he is a god; Moses’ confidence is in Aaron his spokesperson and the two wondrous signs in his hands, given by God.  “Let God’s people go!” says Moses.  As a sign that he is sent by the One True Living God, he throws his shepherd-staff on the ground and it becomes a snake.  But then the court magicians did exactly the same with their sticks – what an unexpected surprise!  The magicians could do the same sign God gave as proof of His divinity and supremacy!

When Pharaoh did not let God’s people go to worship the Lord, Moses performed the first plague by turning all the water in Egypt to blood (Exodus 7:20-21).  Yet Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and unwilling to let God’s people go.

10plagues_cartoons

We know the history.  It took nine more signs before Pharaoh let the Hebrew slaves go.  The one sign was not enough.  Two plagues could not do the job either.  Did Moses miss God when he turned the water into blood and Pharaoh did not release the slaves?  No.  Did he do something wrong that caused the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? No.  Moses had to go to Pharaoh ten time and instruct him to release the slaves ten times and call down ten plagues upon the Egyptians.  It simply took ten plagues for Israel to be delivered from Egypt – Moses needed to be persistent in obeying God.  There is a need for endurance.

This Biblical account is not unique in illustrating our need for persistence.  During Israel’s battle with the Amalekites they had the militant advantage for as long as Moses kept his hands in the air (Exodus 17:11).  Noah was persistent in obeying God to build an ark for 120 years and preach repentance to his generation, yet only his household was saved (Genesis 6:22; 2 Peter 2:5).    Abraham’s persistent faith for an heir is commended by God, so that he was called “friend of God” (Genesis 22:18; Romans 4:17).

More contemporary examples of persistence, its needs and rewards are captured in the memories and legacies of William Wilberforce who dedicated his life to the abolition of the British slave trade, and Thomas Edison for his persistence in the design of the light bulb.  Persistence pays off!

The Bible has much to teach us on a need for persistence.  It is fueled in prayer before God and results in faithful acts of obedience.

Persist in prayer

woman_kneeling_prayer

I have heard many people teach and encouraged demotivated individuals to pray once, believe and “leave it with God”?  Yet the Biblical text is full of examples and instructions regarding persistence prayer.  Jesus himself once prayed for a blind man, but afterward he could not see clearly.  So Jesus persisted in prayer and the man’s sight was fully restored (Mark 8:23-25).  He instructed and encouraged his disciples likewise to persist in prayer, saying that they always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).  He taught them “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).  Although less clear in the English, this instruction in petitioning, acting and persevering for a desired outcome is given, implying persistence until the desired outcome is achieved.  His own life was one of persistent, passionate prayerfulness (Hebrews 5:7; ).  The disciples followed Jesus’ example of persistent prayer and modeled it to the early church (Acts 1:14; 2:42), also instructing them to “persevere in prayer” (Ephesians 6:18), “be steadfast in prayer” (Romans 12:12) and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Examples of persistent prayer also abound in the Old Testament.  Abraham persisted in prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23-33).  Jacob’s persistence in wrestling with the Angel of the Lord secured him with the blessing of God and a changed identity (Genesis 32:24-31).  Moses persisted in prayer on behalf of God’s grumbling, unthankful people for forty days so that they were spared (Deuteronomy 9:25).  Hannah was shamelessly persistent in her petitions for a son, and Samuel was born (1 Samuel 1:10-12).  Likewise Zacharias’ and Elizabeth’s persistent prayers were heard, and John the Baptist was born (Luke 1:12).  Simeon persisted in prayer for Israel’s Savior and he was rewarded to lay his eyes on Jesus before his death (Luke 2:25-32).  Elijah persisted in prayer and the draught over Israel was broken (1 Kings 18:42-45).  Daniel had a disciplined prayer life (Daniel 6:10-11) and persisted in prayer for the restoration of his nation until he was heard (Daniel 9:1-3; 10:2-3, 11-12).

But persistent prayer must be accompanied by persistent faith in action.  In the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture, “waiting on God” and “hoping in God” are typically used as synonyms for persistence in prayer and obedience while waiting for God’s intervention (e.g. Psalms 88 and 130; Isaiah 26:8 and 40:30-31).  There is a need for persisting in doing good as well.

Persist in doing good

Persistence in doing  the will of God
Persistence in doing the will of God

Jesus’ life is the perfect example of persistence in doing good (Acts 10:38), of doing the Father’s will (Matthew 26:36-45; Philippians 2:5-8).  His disciples followed his example and instructed the church to do the same, and “not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13) but remain “steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Joseph’s life is an example of someone who persisted in doing good, even though he was victim to much betrayal an suffering. (Genesis 41:43, 44)  Although he suffered unjustly at the hands of his brother and as slave to Potiphar and as prisoner in jail, he persisted in doing good, and God continued to bless him, until later he was appointed as ruler in Egypt. (Genesis 39:10, 12, 23).  Because of his persistence and faith God entrusted much to him.

Nehemiah’s life is one of persistence and faithful endurance.  Amidst great resistance from without and within (Nehemiah 2:19-20), even in the face of war (Nehemiah 4:7-9), he obeyed the burden of God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, to remove the shame of his people and to restore true worship in Israel (Nehemiah 8:1-3).  Likewise, the lives of the David, prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea as well as the early church serve as inspiration to us of persistent faithfulness to God, suffering ridicule and rejection, imprisonment, beatings and even fatal martyrdom in faithful obedience to God.

Is there something you are “waiting” or “hoping” for in God?  Have you tried but failed, even though you did what God commanded you?  Then remember: it took ten plagues to deliver the slaves from Egypt.  Don’t give up!

So what are you trusting for?  Do you have unfulfilled dreams or unanswered prayers?  God has not forgotten you – he cannot (Isaiah 49:15).  He hears your prayers and is willing and able to intervene (Isaiah 59:1), but you have need for persistence, so pray and work until your bucket is full (Revelations 8:4-5).

Follow the example of our Biblical heroes.   Remain determined in your dream.  Do not wobble due to residence, do not yield to pressure.  Be not spineless in the face of the impossible nor waver when the wait is long.  Are you weak or battle-worn?  Then “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14; see Isaiah 40:31)

But be steadfast in your faith, tenacious in your pursuit, unshakeable on your course.  Be relentless in your prayers and unremitting in doing good.  God honors persistence!