Be’s of the Bible, Part 5

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Many times in Scripture, we are told to “be” something. In our study of some “Be’s” of the Bible, we’ve covered four so far. The four we’ve looked at include:

• Be holy (because God is holy), 1 Peter 1:15, 16
• Be perfect (this one is really, “Be mature”), 2 Corinthians 13:11
• Be still (and let God do the work), Psalm 46:10
• Be sober (stay clear headed, keep your eyes open), 1 Peter 5:8

All the “be’s” are imperative; they are things God wants us to do or become. Consider them to be commands from your Commander. We’d all be better off if we paid attention to the all the “be’s” of the Bible because, obviously, God knows what’s best for us.

Our fifth “be” is found in Revelation 2:10, and is part of John’s letter to the congregation in Smyrna –

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (NIV)

What is a Smyrna?

No, it’s not a disease. Smyrna is a place that no longer exists. Along with six other destinations, the church located at Smyrna received a letter from John containing either good news or bad news from Jesus Christ concerning the particular church to whom the letter was addressed. These seven churches in chapters two and three of Revelation are significant. First of all, they were real places that existed at this point in time. We’re familiar with two of them – Ephesus and Laodicea – because they are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. But all seven were real churches, filled with real Christians with the same problems and strengths our churches have today.

So we might say that while John wrote specifically to these seven churches, they actually represent all churches of that time and those of every century since. Just as, for example, Paul wrote letters to a church in Thessalonica, what was written in those letters could be applied to many other churches because all churches, everywhere and at any time, have the same problems.

One other chilling point. Each of the seven letters opens like this:

“To the angel of the church in…”

The “angel” is really just the pastor. So each letter is addressed to the pastor. I say that’s chilling because that means that the Lord sees the condition of a local church as the pastor’s responsibility (or fault!). Good or bad, it’s on the pastor.

You may not have heard of Smyrna, but maybe you’ve heard of Izmir. That’s what Smyrna is today. Izmir today is the third most populous city in Turkey, after Istanbul and Ankara. The letter written to Smyrna was written after the one written to Ephesus, perhaps because they were located in very close proximity, about thirty miles apart. It was a large, metropolitan commercial center known for its many fine wines. It was, as it is today, a beautiful city, filled with stunning architecture. Back then, there were all kinds of temples built to accommodate the worshippers of all kinds of gods, including a huge temple erected in honor of Emperor Tiberias.

Unfortunately, Smyrna had a dark underbelly courtesy of the many apostate Jews there. They were social agitators, often the instigators in the persecution of Christians. In fact, the word “Smyrna” means “bitter,” and is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “myrrh.” Living in Smyrna was a bitter experience for many Christians.

Smyrna was also a major center in the worship of government; specifically, of Caesar. This came from an attitude of appreciation to Rome for their benevolence, and later it evolved into a kind of patriotic religion. It wasn’t so bad in the beginning; worship of Caesar was wholly voluntary, but it soon because compulsory. Of course, no Christian could ever worship any god, be it Caesar or any other one, save the One true God.

So the Christians were getting it from all sides in Smyrna; there was bitterness aplenty. No wonder our Lord wanted to speak to them personally. If ever a church needed to hear from it’s Head, it was the church in Smyrna.

The letter

John sent these seven letters to the pastors of seven churches. The letters contained the revelation John had of future events, but also personal words from the Lord unique to each church. The first letter was sent to Ephesus, capital of the province of Asia and the place John called home before and after his exile on the island of Patmos.

The second letter went to Smyrna, a neighboring city. It began like this –

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (Revelation 2:8 NIV)

The greeting from Jesus probably meant a lot more to the Christians in Smyrna than it does to Christians today. This church was under relentless persecution and many of its members would become martyrs. To these, our Lord referred to Himself as the One who died yet lives, assuring them of the motivating hope of resurrection. During His earthly ministry, our Lord told His disciples this –

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 NIV)

Motivational? Yes! Many Christians today have it backwards; they fear what people might do to them if they take a stand for Christ instead of fearing what Christ thinks of them when they compromise their testimony. It’s a measure of how worldly you are if you’re like that.

Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26 NIV)

Believe me, you don’t want the Lord to be ashamed of you!

John’s letter continues –

I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9 NIV)

That’s Jesus talking, not John, and those first two words can be cut both ways: “I know.” Yes, the Lord knows – He knows the good and the bad about you and your church. He knows how you’ve compromised your faith for your comfort, and He knows how you’ve suffered on account of your faith. For these precious believers in Smyrna facing the very real prospect of martyrdom, what a comfort it must have been to be reassured that Jesus knows. He knew all about their “afflictions and poverty.” Apparently their afflictions (or tribulations) caused their poverty. This suggests that not everybody in the congregation was poor to start with; they became poor because of their affiliation with Jesus Christ. This was not unheard of in the early church –

You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. (Hebrews 10:34, 35 NIV)

In all probability, the Jewish and pagan mobs were pillaging the property of the Christians and it’s entirely probable that many of these Christians lost their livelihood on account of their faith and were cut off from their families. These believers had it bad.

The Greek word translated “afflictions” is a funny looking one: thlipsis, and it’s a very intense word meaning things like, “pressed” or “squeezed.” It’s a graphic description of how these believers felt: like grapes in a winepress, squeezed until every ounce of juice was squeezed out of them. The pressure exerted against these believers and this church must have been awful. Yet it didn’t shut down and its members didn’t disperse.

From all appearances, this was a church overcome with poverty, yet by our Lord’s own estimation, it was rich! They had become materially poor, yet spiritually rich. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but this combination is seen over and over in the New Testament.

All of this persecution found its source primarily in the Jews who were living in Smyrna. The thing about these Jews was they while they may have been Jews by race and religion, their actions demonstrated that these people were not true sons of Abraham. Paul knew all about people like this –

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. (Romans 2:28, 29 NIV)

It’s not an accident or a clever turn of phrase that these Jewish persecutors were described as being from “the synagogue of Satan.” Their treatment of God’s people showed with whom they had aligned themselves. How evil were these Jews? The story of the martyrdom of Polycarp illustrates the fact of the blackness of their hearts. Polycarp, disciple of John, was a harmless preacher and teacher of the Gospel, yet he was so hated by the Jews of Smyrna that, even though it was the Sabbath, they collected enough word to burn this man of peace alive.

A word of encouragement

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2:10 NIV)

That’s the background of our fifth “Be” of the Bible, “be faithful.” But before we get to that, our Lord issues a mild admonition: “do not be afraid.” These amazing believers were hanging tough to be sure, but obviously  some were becoming fearful, and our Lord certainly doesn’t sugar-coat their prospects: things were about to get a whole lot worse. Our Lord wasn’t trying to scare these people but to fortify them! Keep it in perspective: their future (and ours) is in the hands of “the first and the last,” the one who was dead and became alive. If Jesus can do that, He is surely able to carry believers through death to life.

That phrase, “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you,” may bother you a little. It shouldn’t. This refers to the testing of their faith. Yes, the Devil is the one who is inspiring these persecutions, but the Lord will allow them to accomplish HIS purpose in the lives of these Christians. So Job well understood –

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. (Job 28:10 NIV)

This word of encouragement goes beyond the expected for these believers encouraged to keep on keeping on even to the point of death. In other words: Never give up! Never give the Devil a quarter.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13 NIV)

The good news is that for those believers who will remain faithful no matter what, a great reward is waiting them: The victor’s crown. Now, that’s not the crown a king wears. There’s only ONE king and that’s not you. The Greek word for “crown” is stephanos, the “victor’s crown.” It’s really the “crown of life,” as in “eternal life.” Yes, eternal life depends on believers remaining faithful right up until the bitter end. It’s not how you began the race that counts, it’s how you end it.

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