Monday, April 19, 2010

Sermon on Revelation 2:8-11, for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, "Crown of Life!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we continue our “Easter Letters” sermon series with part 2: the letter to the church of Smyrna. Last week we heard about the church of Ephesus, which was commended for its faithfulness in testing the apostles and teachers, but was called to repentance for their lovelessness. The reading today addressed a church that is undergoing intense persecution, and is warned to stop being afraid. To the faithful, there is promised the Crown of Life. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The first verse of the letter to Smyrna shows the theme of resurrection, as it describes the words of Jesus who’s “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” Our crucified and risen Lord speaks this word to the churches. This verse is a good example of why it’s important to pay careful attention to the titles and names given to Jesus or to God the Father. These titles that are shared between God the Father and Jesus the Son are a strong statement of Jesus’ divinity as the Son of God, that He shares with His Father. In chapter 1:8, it was the Lord God (the Father) who called Himself the “Alpha and the Omega, who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” He speaks of His eternal nature, that He is without beginning or end. Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet—a parallel to Jesus’ title as the first and the last. Later in the end of Revelation, chapter 22:13, Jesus uses that same title of Himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” He is worshipped and identified with the same divinity as His Father—the same eternal nature, without beginning or end.

We have much less historical detail about the church of Smyrna in the Bible, as it is only mentioned here. However, it was known as a prominent city in Asia Minor, and was noted for its beautiful and symmetrical architecture. It had a stadium, library, and the largest theatre in Asia Minor. A strong Jewish community there was in frequent conflict with the Christians, as noted in the letter here. Smyrna was also the first city to build a temple to the goddess of Rome, and was noted for its cult of worship for the Roman emperor. Again, a challenging context for a new Christian community. As I’ll describe further in a few minutes, there was also intense persecution of the Christians there, especially since they would not sacrifice to the emperor.

First of all, Jesus commends the church of Smyrna, saying: “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Tribulation is hardship or testing, especially in the sense of a spiritual testing. And the believers at Smyrna faced poverty and slander by the people of the Jewish synagogue. Why were they in poverty? Was it because their Christian faith had caused them hardship and ostracism by those with whom they once had business contacts? It’s still common today in some strong religious communities, like Jewish or Muslim ones, that if a family member converts to Christianity, they become an outcast from the family and community. We don’t know in this particular case, but apparently they were being slandered by the Jews. In several places in the New Testament, the hatred of the Jews for the Christians was already evident by their persecution and even murder of some of the followers of Jesus. As in our reading, Saul, before his conversion, stood by and gave approval to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Today it’s hard for many of us to imagine such bitter persecution, as sheltered as we are in America. Yet it’s happening just as much today in persecuted countries around the world, that Christians are losing their businesses, their possessions, and even enduring assaults on their body and life and families. Though we don’t face much outright persecution, there still is plenty of slander, both against the church and against Jesus Christ, just as there was in Smyrna. Slander is the breaking of the 8th commandment, that we should not bear false testimony. Someone who slanders is spreading false or hurtful charges that are damaging to someone’s reputation.

What are some slanders that you have heard leveled against the church today? As a misrepresentation of the truth, slanders do their damage because of their loose connection to some truth. The church may be slandered as narrow-minded, a place for people of blind faith, that religion is a crutch for the weak, that the church is homophobic, sexist, patriarchal, ignorant of science, hypocritical. A common slander against Jesus that is found in the Jewish Talmud was that He was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier, or that He performed miracles by sorcery. Recently, the atheist author Richard Dawkins had his own slew of slanders against God, that I will not repeat here. But in any case, the church must bear up under slander just as Christ Himself endured such mockery on the cross, and did not validate any of it. Those who make such slanders against the church and blasphemies against God are ultimately serving the purposes of the devil, in seeking to destroy and divide the church.

Yet in the midst of their suffering and poverty Christ commends them, saying I know your poverty, yet you are rich. To have faith in Christ, to be persecuted for His name’s sake, is to have the blessedness of the kingdom of heaven. The spiritual richness of having treasure stored up in heaven is something that the hatred of the world, and enduring physical poverty cannot take away. This is especially relevant for us today, in the midst of one of the most significant recessions in our nation in decades, and with unemployment rates and underemployment rising. A lot of people are hurting deeply. Many young couples are out of work. In such a place, one can acknowledge that their physical poverty is insignificant in comparison with the knowledge that we have all the spiritual riches of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ.

Yet fear can be a very real response to such circumstances—and certainly it was in Smyrna as they faced not only poverty but intense persecution. They were even warned in advance that it was going to get worse for a period of time. Christ spoke: “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.” The command, “Do not fear” is even more literally, “Stop fearing!” The present fear of the church, of what bad might happen to it, was the one weakness Christ called them to turn from.

Fear can paralyze us to inaction, or to silence our witness about Christ. The remedy for fear is to repent and turn to faith in Christ. Christ also told them that the suffering they would endure would be finite, and come to an end. The ten days symbolize a short but complete time through which they would be tested, and would be complete by God’s timetable. God was still in control, though events seemed fearful around them. We too need to be called away from fear, to endure, and to put our trust in God, even to the point of death, so as to receive the crown of life.

I want to share with you a short story about one such Christian living in Smyrna, who faced just such persecution and trial. The true story of one of the earliest Christian martyrs after the time of the apostles, was Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. In the year 156 AD, perhaps 75 years or so after the letter to Smyrna was written, an intense persecution broke out against the Christians in that city. Polycarp was called to the stadium in Smyrna by the military governor or proconsul. It was demanded that he make sacrifices to the Roman Emperor and call the Caesar his Lord. He was told to have respect for his old age, deny Christ and so spare his life. Polycarp responded with tremendous faith, saying, “For 86 years I have served Christ, and He never did me any injury, how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Again and again they threatened and urged Polycarp to deny his faith, but he remained steadfast, declaring, “I am a Christian! If you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and I will declare them to you.” The governor threatened to throw him to the wild beasts unless he repent of his Christianity. Polycarp answered to call the beasts then, since it was not the custom of Christians to repent from what was good in order to turn to evil, but rather to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous. Since Polycarp was unafraid of the beasts, the governor threatened instead to burn him alive. Again, Polycarp was given words of courage and wisdom by the Holy Spirit, “You threaten me with fire that burns for an hour, and then soon is extinguished; but are you ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly? What are you waiting for? Do what you will to me.”

After this display of fearlessness and immovable faith, Polycarp’s face was filled with joy and peace. Then the astonished governor condemned him to death by fire, and the angry mob of both Jews and Gentiles gathered wood to burn him. While the persecution had escalated to such a height of fury—Polycarp was apparently the 12th such martyr put to death in the two cities of Smyrna and Philadelphia—after his death the persecution died out there. What a tremendous witness of faith to all who saw his death, and an example of the fearlessness and faithfulness unto death that Christ called the believers of Smyrna to have.

Polycarp of course was an imitator of His Lord Jesus, sharing in his sufferings. Christ was the most faithful martyr of all, who had no sin, and died enduring all the slanders that were pointed at Him on the cross. It is Christ’s victory over death, His three-day triumph over sin, death, and the devil, that gives victory and confidence to all His disciples, from Peter, James and John to Polycarp, to every one of us. Though we do not have that courage of ourselves, should the time come when such courage is needed, His Holy Spirit will bless and strengthen us. The resurrection promise that we hold on to is that if we have faith in Christ, even till our death, that we will have the crown of life. What is that crown of life? It is the victor’s crown of given to those who complete the race of this life in faith in Jesus. It’s the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8) that is the perfect innocence of Jesus Christ that we will wear in heaven.

As the Spirit promises to the churches, we who conquer with Christ, remaining faithful to death, will not be hurt by the second death. The second death, is the death of eternal punishment and separation from God in hell. There is no fear of hurt or harm from this second death, for those who have been spiritually raised in Christ. Though time doesn’t permit for a full discussion here, basically the first “death” spoken of in Scripture is the spiritual death to which all human beings are subject to because of sin. It is being spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). But through our baptism we have put our sinful nature to death and been raised to new life with Christ. We are spiritually alive in Christ by faith, and do not need to fear the second death—the eternal death of separation from God. We can face our physical death unafraid, because we have the promise of the physical resurrection of our body from the grave. This resurrection will complete the spiritual resurrection that is begun in us already now by faith. So conquer with Christ! Have no fear of death, poverty, hardship or persecution, but be faithful and know that God will deliver to us what He has promised, and that you one day will receive that blessed crown of life, an imperishable and unfading crown of victory over death. In Jesus’ name, we pledge ourselves by faith to Him. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.


Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. The city of Smyrna is only mentioned here in the Bible. Its citizens were proud of its beauty and architecture, and it’s thought that the shape of the city with a hilltop crest in the middle resembled a crown, which was a prominent symbol associated with Smyrna’s beauty. The city had dedicated a temple to Rome there in 195 BC. There was hostility between the Jewish and Christian communities there. In 156 AD, Polycarp, the aged Christian bishop of the city was martyred in the arena.

2. Identify the following in the letter to Smyrna: (these basic features are repeated in each letter)
Image of Christ:
Local detail about the church:
What Christ sees: A) Good B) Bad
Call to Repent:
Promise to the One who Conquers:

3. How does the title used for Jesus: “the first and the last” (2:8) show His divinity? Compare to who else receives this title in the following passages: Rev. 1:8, 17-18; 21:6; 22:13; Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12.

4. What does it mean to be physically poor, but spiritually rich? How is this greater than all earthly treasure? Matthew 5:2-12; 6:19-24; James 5:1-5

5. What persecution and slander do Christians face? What are some common slanders against the church? Against God or Christ?

6. What is the reward for faithfulness in the midst of persecution—even to death? How was Polycarp an imitator of Christ? What is the second death that cannot harm us? Rev. 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8. Cf. John 5:19-30

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