The Victor’s Crown
“If you become an evangelical Christian in Laos, the communist neighbor of Vietnam and Cambodia, you likely will be "asked" to sign a fill-in-the-blank form. And it's not a membership card at your neighborhood church.
The form reads, in part
I, (name), who live in (location), believe in a foreign religion, which the imperialists have used for their own benefit to divide the united front and to build power for themselves against the local authorities. Now I and my family clearly see the intentions of the enemy and regret the deeds which we have committed. We have clearly seen the goodness of the Party and the Government. Therefore, I and my family voluntarily and unequivocally resign from believing in this foreign religion.
If you sign, you promise not to participate in this "foreign religion"—Christianity in every reported case—under punishment of law. If you don't sign, you can expect humiliation, harassment, and persecution, including probable imprisonment and torture.
The document's widespread use by Laotian officials has been authenticated by the World Evangelical Fellowship's Religious Liberty Commission and other sources. Hundreds of rural Christians reportedly have been forced to sign the form in public, then compelled to participate in animistic sacrifices.”
Baptist Press (10-9-00 article); submitted by Ken Taylor, New Orleans, Louisiana
Poor or Rich
Judy and I are frugal and we watch our spending pretty carefully
We are great window shoppers – we can look at stuff without feeling like we have to buy it
Our boys have said over the years that we are poor
The reason they feel that way is because of how we communicated our desire to be frugal
We would tell them that we didn’t have the money to buy a particular item or do a particular activity
It wasn’t that we didn’t have the money, but that we were choosing not to spend it on those things
Wade was reading a book several years ago about budgeting and finances and the author said that many times, as parents, we tell our children we don’t have the money, but the reality is we don’t want to spend our money that way
The author recommended that instead of saying, “we don’t have the money,” that we should explain to our children that we don’t want to spend our money that way
This would have a alleviated the misconception that our boys had, that we were poor
We let our boys know, now, that we have the money, but are choosing not to spend it that way
Statistically, compared to the rest of the world, we are rich
There are times when we have struggled financially
After moving back to Ohio from Florida, there was a period of time when I did not have a job
We had been putting Judy’s salary away into savings and living off my income while she was expecting Wade
So, we had a nice savings account that we would be able to use while she stayed at home with Wade and I worked
The only problem was I didn’t find a job right away and we had to live off of our savings for several months
It didn’t take long for our savings to diminish
We weren’t worried, because we knew that God had put the desire in our hearts to save her salary and live off mine
He knew what the future held and was preparing us for that
We ended last year and started this year with some medical visits to the ER and the cardiologist that were unexpected
It doesn’t take long to accumulate some significant medical bills
We realize that none of this came as a surprise to God and we are trusting Him to provide
We may look at these financial struggles as suffering
But, we certainly have not suffered like believers in Laos or like the church in Smyrna
They were suffering much greater things
It’s sometimes difficult for us to relate to the suffering that believers experience in other parts of the world where Christianity is not accepted
Not really suffering
We may get picked on at school, if we even dare to let anyone know that we are a Christian, but we certainly aren’t in danger of being kicked out of school or losing our life (some students have given their lives instead of denying Jesus Christ)
We may get ridiculed at work, but in most cases we don’t lose our job or fear for our lives
We may be ostracized in our community because of our faith in Jesus, but we certainly aren’t kicked out of our houses or concerned that someone will kill us
More suffering is coming
We are being told today that our Judeo-Christian beliefs are wrong
The media and others are saying that our beliefs are dangerous
They are telling the culture that we are evil
This is all a part of Isaiah’s prophecy
Isaiah 5:20, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
There is a verbal war that is raging in our culture where Christians are being called bigots, intolerant, and homophobes
Christians are labeled as antichoice, antidiversity, antigay, anti-inclusion, and anti-intolerance
From these labels we can expect economic boycotts, governmental restrictions, and social ostracism [Akin, Christ-Centered Exposition, Exalting Jesus in Revelation, 48]
We don’t have to look very far to see these kinds of things already happening (Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of since-closed Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Portland, Oregon – $135,000 fine for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding)
While we currently don’t fear for our lives, that day will probably come sooner than later and when that happens, we can find hope and comfort from Jesus’ words to the church in Smyrna
In the letter to Smyrna, Jesus wants us to understand that . . .
BIG IDEA – Because He has overcome, we can overcome.
GOD (Revelation 2:8-11)
Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation, only Smyrna still exists today as the modern city of Izmir, Turkey
It was 35 miles north of Ephesus
It was on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and had a harbor that supported its import-export industry
Mt. Pagus rose 500 feet above the harbor and looked down over it
There was a famous thoroughfare that encircled Mt. Pagus that was called the “Street of Gold”
Mt. Pagus had two temples at either end of the roadway, the local temple to Cybele, known as Sipylene Mother (a patron divinity), and a temple to Zeus
It was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple to the goddess Roma (195 B.C.)
Smyrna was known for its loyalty to Rome and because of that loyalty, it beat out ten other Asian cities to be the first to build a temple to the emperor Tiberius
Because of the strong connection to Rome and the large Jewish population that was hostile towards Christians, it was very difficult to live in Smyrna and claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ
With this background knowledge we find Jesus’ words to the church in Smyrna very practical
Characteristic of the Sender (v. 8)
Last week we talked about the structure of each of the letters (this letter and the letter to the church in Philadelphia do not have a word of criticism or correction
Again, the letter is written to the angel of the church in Smyrna
The characteristics of Jesus that are shared from Revelation 1:8-18 are particularly applicable for what the church in Smyrna is facing
First and Last
This characteristic comes from Revelation 1:17
As was discussed there, this title relates to Jesus’ attributes of being sovereign and eternal
He has power over time – he was there at Creation and He will be there at the end of time
He is aware of the circumstances of His people
He knows what you are currently going through – it does not come as a surprise to Him
Died and came to life again
This characteristic is also found in Revelation 1:18
This expresses Jesus’ power over sin and death
He took all of our sin on Himself when He died on the cross
Jesus experienced everything the believers in Smyrna were going to experience – slander, persecution, rejection, imprisonment, and death
He didn’t stay dead, He overcame! He came to life again, through the power of God
Because He overcame, we can overcome!
Jesus wanted the believers in Smyrna to know that He had experienced the same things they were experiencing – He knew
Compliment to the Recipients (vv. 9)
We see again that Jesus is omniscient (all-knowing)
It wasn’t just some basic affliction that would be easily overcome – it was intense and extensive
It can be translated tribulations
This was the basic term and the next two things, that Jesus says He knows about, explain the depth of the afflictions
Poverty was part of the persecution the church was experiencing
It was extensive, to the point of not even having the basics of life
Their poverty resulted from losing their jobs and then not being able to get new ones in a hostile pagan culture
The antagonism from the Jews and the Gentiles was intense and included damage to and/or theft of their property
Most Christians in the 1st Century were already part of the poorer classes of society
They couldn’t catch a break in the culture of Smyrna – it was a difficult life
It didn’t stop with intense poverty, but they were also being slandered
The slander of the Jews
The Jews were granted a status with the Roman Empire that enabled them to practice Judaism without being persecuted or experiencing social ostracism by the culture
They were an accepted religion and were not required to participate in emperor worship
Christianity grew out of the Jewish faith, but as they continued to grow the Jews were not interested in having them under their privileged status
It’s interesting that the Jews wanted to make this hard distinction
Jesus was Jewish
At least eleven of the twelve apostles were Jewish
While we don’t know exactly what was being said about Christians in Smyrna, we do have an idea of some of the things that were said about Christians in the 1st and 2nd Century [Patterson, The New American Commentary, Revelation, 96-97]
They were charged with cannibalism since they talked about “eating the body” and “drinking the blood” of Christ
They were accused of being sexually immoral because they had “love feasts”
They were labeled as atheists, because they didn’t accept the Greek gods
They were accused of being arsonists or incendiaries because of the continual references to the fire of the Spirit and the fires of divine judgment
Their unwillingness to participate in emperor worship caused them to be identified as disloyal to Rome
Their intense loyalty to one another and to Jesus would often get them disowned by their Jewish families – so they were “home wreckers”
The Jews weren’t free from the criticism of Jesus
While they were saying all kinds of false things about the Christians, Jesus says they are not really Jews
Paul explains what Jesus is saying here
Romans 2:28-29, A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
Paul explains further that Gentile believers have been grafted in where the Israelites have been removed
Romans 11:17-21, If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
The Israelites were God’s chosen people, but when Jesus came He opened the door for all people to be His chosen people, to be part of His family, through faith in Jesus Christ
John 1:12, Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God
The Jews in Smyrna were persecuting the Christians, because they were being led by Satan
Read John 8:31-47
This can happen even within the church – fellow Christians can be led astray and begin teaching false doctrine
Acts 20:29-30, I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
Jesus is commending them for enduring under some extreme conditions in Smyrna (afflictions, poverty, and slander), but He commends them also for their rich spiritual life
They are rich!
While they may be materially poor, they are rich spiritually
James 2:5, Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
We have seen it time and time again in the lives of believers around the world
Whenever they have been stripped of everything, they lean on Jesus – their faith is deep and enduring
“Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, once referenced what he called the "counter-intuitive phenomena of Jewish history"—a phenomena that applies to Christians as well. "When it was hard to be a Jew," Sacks wrote, "people stayed Jewish. When it was easy to be a Jew, people stopped being Jewish. Globally, this is the major Jewish problem of our time."
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century (Schocken Books, 2009), page 51
This is true of Christianity too, those who are not experiencing persecution, affliction, poverty, and slander can very easily stop being Christians, but when persecution, affliction, poverty, and slander are present, Christians remain strong
Perhaps our prayer today should be that God would allow us to experience persecution, affliction, poverty, and slander, so we will turn to Him and rely on Him completely – our Christian walk may be too easy
Jesus does not have any criticism for the church at Smyrna, but His command is very serious
Command to the Recipients (v. 10)
Don’t be afraid
The Greek here has the meaning of “stop being afraid”
It is also emphatic here, which would mean “don’t be afraid of anyone” [Osborne, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation, 132]
The Psalmist encourages us with these words, God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear . . . (Psalm 46:1-2a)
Jesus give us this command, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Paul reminds Timothy that everyone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)
Suffering is imminent
Jesus was warning the believers in Smyrna that suffering was coming
Some of them would be imprisoned for a period of time
We see in this passage that ten days is given as a period of time that they would be in prison
Some scholars see the time period as symbolic of a limited period of time [Mounce & Easley]
Most scholars agree that in the 1st Century, long term imprisonment was not a valid punishment
“The State would not burden itself with custody of criminals, except as a preliminary stage to their trial, or in the interval between trial and execution. Fine, exile, and death constituted the usual range of penalties; and in many cases, where a crime would in modern times be punished by imprisonment, it was visited with death in Roman law.” [Ramsey cited by Patterson, 98]
The result of being imprisoned was most likely going to be death
It was a test of their faith
The devil wanted to see how resilient these Christians were
Could he persuade them to apostatize – to curse Jesus, to denounce their faith
They would be able to overcome, because Jesus had overcome
Jesus encourages His followers to remain faithful even to the point of death, because they will be rewarded with something far greater than their physical life
Faithfulness is rewarded
PRINCIPLE – God promises to reward His people who are faithful even unto death.
Jesus promises to give them the crown of life
There are two Greek words for crown
Diadēma which is the royal crown (it represented authority and honor)
Stephanos is the victor’s crown or wreath that was placed around the head of the athlete who won the games or the general who was victorious in battle (it was a wreath made out of olive, laurel, pine, or celery)
Stephanos is used here
Jesus promises his faithful followers the crown of life (eternal life)
Eternal life is the kind of life we need here on earth to obey God and it’s the kind of life we need to spend eternity with God
John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life
God showed His great love for us that while we were still sinners, He sent Jesus to die for us (Romans 5:8)
We’re all born as sinners (Romans 3:23)
Out of God’s great love for us, He sent Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice to take away the sin of the world (2 Cor. 5:21)
All we have to do is repent of our sins, recognize God’s love for us, and believe in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for us
My Next Step Today Is To: Repent of my sins, accept God’s love for me, believe in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, and receive God’s eternal life.
When we make that decision, then Jesus makes a commitment to us
Commitment to all who Overcome (v. 11)
Jesus is speaking to all the churches again – the other six churches in Asia Minor and all churches today
Jesus promises that to those who faithfully conqueror the afflictions, poverty, slander, imprisonment, and death that is coming, will not be hurt by the second death
“The Lord who ‘died and came to life again’ is powerful enough to keep his faithful people safe even if they pass through the gates of martyrdom.” [Easley, Holman New Testament Commentary, Revelation, 37]
The first death is the separation of the soul from the body, while the second death is the separation of the soul from God [Patterson, 99]
Revelation helps us understand the meaning of second death
Revelation 20:14, Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.
Revelation 21:8, But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice the magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.
Whether you’re being picked on at school, ridiculed at work, or ostracized in your community, you can be encouraged by knowing that because Jesus overcame, you can overcome
Your Judeo-Christian beliefs may come under attack in the near future
What will your response be?
It should be the same as the believers in Smyrna – you don’t have to be afraid
You can be faithful through the testing (afflictions, poverty, and slander)?
You can remain faithful even to the point of death?
My prayer is that you will, through the power of Jesus Christ
My Next Step Today Is To: Trust God to remain faithful to Him even through afflictions, poverty, slander, imprisonment, and death.
Are you spiritually rich?
Perhaps the lack of persecution, afflictions, poverty, and slander have made it easy for you to claim to be a Christian, but not really to live it out
Does the fruit of your life show a deep commitment to Jesus Christ or the culture of our day?
What priorities dominate your life?
Do you need to ask the Lord to bring persecution, afflictions, poverty, and slander into your life in order to motivate you to follow Him more closely?
My Next Step Today Is To: Evaluate my life and make any necessary changes to my priorities in order to follow Jesus more deeply.
As a church we have to be ready to face the onslaught of criticism, afflictions, and slander that will surely come our way as we continue to hold to the truths of the Bible
We will experience persecution, potentially imprisonment, and perhaps death
The believers in Smyrna experienced that with one of their own not long after John sent the letter to them
“Approximately 60 years after John wrote these words to the church at Smyrna, there would indeed be a man ‘who would not be afraid of what you are about to suffer’ and who was ‘faithful until death.’”
We learn of his final hours and words from the book Early Church Fathers.
“Polycarp, when he first heard of it, was not perturbed, but desired to remain in the city. But the majority induced him to withdraw, so he retired to a farm not far from the city and there stayed with a few friends, doing nothing else night and day but pray for all men and for the churches throughout the world, as was his constant habit . . . Forthwith those searching for him arrived. And when they did not find him, they seized two young slaves, one of whom confessed under torture. For it was really impossible to conceal him, since the very ones who betrayed him were of his own household . . . Late in the evening they came up with him and found him in bed in the upper room of a small cottage. Even so he could have escaped to another farm, but he did not wish to do so, saying, ‘God’s will be done.’ Thus, when he heard of their arrival, he went downstairs and talked with them, while those who looked on marveled at his age and constancy, and at how there should be such zeal over the arrest of so old a man. Straightway he ordered food and drink, as much as they wished, to be set before them at that hour, and he asked them to give him an hour so that he might pray undisturbed. And when they consented, he stood and prayed – being filled with the grace of God that for two hours he could not hold his peace, to the amazement of those who heard. And many repented that they had come to get such a devout old man.
When at last he had finished his prayer, in which he remembered all who had met with him at any time, both small and great, both those with and those without renown, and the whole [universal] church throughout the world, the hour of departure having come, they mounted him on an ass and brought him into the city . . . There the chief of the police, Herod, and his father, Nicetas, met him and transferred him to their carriage, and tried to persuade him, as they sat beside him, saying, ‘What harm is there to say ‘Lord Caesar,’ and to offer incense and all that sort of thing, and to save yourself?’
At first he did not answer them. But when they persisted, he said, ‘I am not going to do what you advise me.’
Then when they failed to persuade him, they uttered dire threats and made him get out with such speed that in dismounting from the carriage he bruised his shin. But without turning around, as though nothing had happened, he proceeded swiftly, and was led into the arena, there being such a tumult in the arena that no one could be heard . . . and when finally he was brought up, there was a great tumult on hearing that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, he tried to persuade him to deny [the faith], saying, ‘Have respect to your age’ – and other things that customarily follow this, such as, ‘Swear by the fortune of Caesar; change your mind’; . . . the proconsul was insistent and said: ‘Take the oath, and I shall release you. Curse Christ.’
Polycarp said: ‘Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ . . . The proconsul said: ‘I have wild beasts. I shall throw you to them, if you do not change your mind.’
But he said: ‘Call them. For repentance from the better to the worse is not permitted us; but it is noble to change from what is evil to what is righteous.’
And again [he said] to him, ‘I shall have you consumed with fire, if you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.’
But Polycarp said: ‘The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.’
And when he had said these things and many more besides he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was full of grace, so that not only did it not fall with dismay at the things said to him, but on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his own herald into the midst of the arena to proclaim three times: ‘Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.’
When this was said by the herald, the entire crowd of Gentiles and Jews who lived in Smyrna shouted with uncontrollable anger and a great cry: ‘This one is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice nor to worship.’
Such things they shouted and asked the official Philip that he let loose the lion on Polycarp. But he said it was not possible for him to do so, since he had brought the wild-beast sports to a close. Then they decided to shout with one accord that he burn Polycarp alive . . . Then these things happened with such dispatch, quicker than can be told – the crowds in so great a hurry to gather wood and kindling from the workshops and the baths, the Jews being especially zealous, as usual, to assist with this . . . Straightway then, they set about him the material prepared for the pyre. And when they were about to nail him also, he said: ‘Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from the nail.’
So they did not nail him, but tied him. And with his hands put behind him and tied, like a noble ram out of a great flock ready for sacrifice, a burnt offering ready and acceptable to God, he looked up to heaven and said:
‘Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee, ‘the God of angels and powers and all creation’ and of the whole race of the righteous who live in thy presence: I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for ‘resurrection to eternal life’ of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as thou has prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled, thou that art the true God without any falsehood. For this and for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen.’
And when he had concluded the Amen and finished his prayer, the men attending to the fire lighted it . . .
But the jealous and malicious evil one . . . pled with the magistrate not to give up his body, ‘else,’ said he, ‘they will abandon the Crucified and begin worshiping this one.’ This was done at the instigation and insistence of the Jews, who also watched when we were going to take him from the fire, being ignorant that we can never forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the faultless for the sinners, nor can we ever worship any other. For we worship this One as Son of God, but we love the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord, deservedly so, because of their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher. May it be also our lot to be their companions and fellow disciples! (“Martyrdom of Polycarp,” Early Church Fathers, 150-55) [Akin, Christ-Centered Exposition, Exalting Jesus in Revelation, 50-53]