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What Jesus Thinks Of His Church

When Jesus Observes Our Suffering

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 7, 2007

Selected highlights from this sermon

Suffering has always surrounded God’s church, and the Christians at the early church in Smyrna were no exception. They faced a smorgasbord of suffering, including poverty, slander, imprisonment, and death. 

Jesus had a response for them, and for those of us who suffer today. We can have peace. Ultimately, every Christian will experience victory over every trial and trouble. 

If the first mark of the church is love, the second mark of the true church is suffering, and today members of the body of Jesus Christ, our brothers and sisters, are suffering all over the world. They are particularly suffering in countries such as China where Christian ministers are still being jailed, and other Christians are being thrown into jails and forgotten about, and even tortured. It’s also true in North Korea. Communism has always tried to stamp out the church. And then it’s true in Islamic countries such as Iran and also in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia and in the Sudan. Wherever the Muslims have a majority the church is always persecuted. The attempt is always made to stamp out the believers. I’ve seen pictures of the Muslim takeover in Nigeria; the extent of their takeover is about a third of the country. Churches have been burned, pastors killed, and families imprisoned. That’s what our brothers and sisters are enduring all over the world, but what about us? Well, we’ve escaped persecution. I think that those days of persecution are coming.
I’m reminded of the judge in the south who told a valedictorian, “If you mention Jesus in your valedictory address, you’ll wish that you had not been born.” He was warning her that you couldn’t mention Jesus. I am amused at that because she could have quoted Gandhi, or she could have quoted the Dalai Lama, and that would have shown that she was really up-to-date on what is happening in the world, but she was told not to mention Jesus.

It reminds me of the early church in the book of Acts where the authorities said to the apostles, “You are doing all these things in the name of Jesus. Stop doing what you are doing in that name.” And the apostles said, “Whether it is right in your sight to hearken unto God or unto you, you have to judge, but as for us, we will not cease talking and preaching the name of Jesus.” The American church has compromised too long and it’s time that we drew a line in the sand. [applause]

The passage of scripture today is taken from the book of Revelation, chapter two, and the church that we are going to be talking about is the church in Smyrna. The word Smyrna means myrrh. When the wise men brought their gifts to Jesus they brought Smyrna – myrrh – which is a crushed plant, and that’s, perhaps, very appropriate because Smyrna is a crushed church, except that Jesus walks with them in their persecution.

Now, if you were at Ephesus and you were on your way to Smyrna (Ephesus being the first letter and Smyrna the second) I think we’re talking of a distance of about thirty-five or forty miles. You ask, “Does Smyrna still exist today?” and the answer is “Yes. It is modern day Izmir, so if you want to find it on the map you look for Izmir.

What I’d like us to do is to see the persecution that was taking place, and then see the promises of God. The first part of my message is going to be very depressing actually. It’s going to be very dark and very foreboding. It’s going to sound pretty helpless, but don’t you dare listen to the first part of the message without listening to the last part which is going to be optimistic, filled with light and sunshine and blessing and all of eternity.

Now what I’d like you to do today (thank you, by the way, for bringing your Bibles) – I would like you to underline five words that describe the church at Smyrna and its suffering. If you are in the habit of underlining in your Bible, and if you underline in such a way that it doesn’t soak through on the other side of the page, you can do that now, and the text is chapter two of the book of Revelation, beginning at verse eight.

It says, “These are the words of the first and the last who died and came to life.” This is going to be very critical for what follows. Jesus is there at the beginning and he’s there at the end as triumphant, and he was dead and is alive forevermore. Amen. And now come the words that the church of Smyrna endured, and we begin in verse nine. “I know your tribulation…” That’s the first word to underline.

Why were they in tribulation? Well, Smyrna happened to be one of the cities where emperor worship was instituted. They had a temple and they were supposed to burn some incense – at least take a pinch of it and throw it into the fire - and then simply say three words, “Caesar is lord.” That’s all that was required - those three words.

The Christians said, “No, we can’t say that because Caesar isn’t lord.” The Romans said, “Go ahead and worship Jesus, but just say, ‘Caesar is lord’ because you need to worship Caesar along with Jesus,” and the believers in Smyrna said, “We can’t do that,” so they were in deep tribulation because of it. And they were thought to be terrible citizens. They could not be trusted in their country to uphold the laws of the land because they refused to worship the emperor. So the first word is tribulation.

The second word to underline is poverty, and the word in the Greek text means abject poverty. You see we’re not just talking about people who were marginalized because of their faith. We’re speaking about those who had their homes plundered, and those who indeed didn’t have jobs. When they were isolated other believers would help them and bring them food, and then those believers were also considered to be under an interdict. They also were being criticized and marginalized because they helped those who were being persecuted. So we’re talking about people - something like the description in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews - who wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins in dens and caves of the earth. These people were absolutely destitute, and remember why. Their poverty was because of their faith.

But do you notice that little parenthesis after the word poverty? It says, “…but you are rich.” Isn’t that remarkable? It’s there in the text. It is possible to be absolutely poor, to have your house taken away, to be given situations that are beyond description so far as we’re concerned, and to be rich in faith, and after all, as we shall see, eternity is coming.

So the next word to underline is slander. He says, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Wow! There were Jewish people there who didn’t have the responsibility; they apparently were exempt from acknowledging Caesar as lord, and they persecuted the Christians. They slandered them and these were not true Jews in the sense that they may have been Jews so far as their racial origin is concerned, but spiritually speaking, they were not true Jews. They certainly weren’t in Paul’s sense where a true Jew was one who acknowledges God and trusts God, and then trusts Jesus as the Messiah. Regardless of who they were, the text says that “they were of the synagogue of Satan.”

Contemplate that for a moment. What that is telling us is this; that if you want to look for the devil you don’t find him among the alcoholics. The demons can do that work. You don’t find him among the pornographers. The demons can do that work. You look for the devil in the midst of religious institutions. That is the most important place for him to be.

You see, we could say the synagogue of Satan. We also find him in the church of Satan, and by that I’m not talking about an actual church that is named the church of Satan. Apparently there are such occult worship places, but I’m talking about a very dignified church, a very upscale church where everyone goes and where the Bible is even opened to give a little sermonette to a group of Christianettes, delivered by some Christianette, I guess. That’s what I’m talking about – a place where there is no cross, no sin - nothing. It’s just “We’re all such wonderful people, and we could even do better, and the better we do, we’ll go to heaven.”

We could say the synagogue of Satan, the church of Satan, the mosque of Satan. When you want to find the devil, you go to places like that, because remember, his most important agenda is to keep people from faith in Christ, and if they can have a false religion and a false sense of security, he has what he wants.

I hope that you return for the next message in this series because I am going to tell you about the next church in the next message where it says, “You are where Satan’s seat is.” I’ll even tell you now I believe that I have walked on Satan’s seat in the city of Pergamum, and I didn’t do it in Pergamum. You have to come back to understand that.

So, what God says is, “You’ve endured this slander from those who claim to be religious but who use their religiosity to persecute the church,” and then the next word is prison. He says, “Behold the devil will throw you into prison.” You can underline that word, and when you think about prisons in the early times they were terrible places, but it is there that oftentimes they were sanctified by the presence of believers.

And then underline the word death. Be faithful unto death. Those are five words to underline.

The most famous martyr in Smyrna was a man by the name of Polycarp who had been friends of John the Apostle, and in the year 156 he was brought before the authorities and asked whether or not he would recant, and he said no, and he said these words that are famous in church history. “Eighty and six years I have served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme the king (and that undoubtedly was a slap in the face of Caesar) who saved me?” So they gave him a choice as to how he wanted to die, and he said that the fire would be fine. They hurriedly made a fire and these are his final words. “Oh God, I thank thee that thou hast thought me worthy to share the cup of Christ among a number of witnesses,” and with that Polycarp died, but he was not the only one who was martyred in Smyrna. “Indeed the devil shall throw some of you into prison … Be faithful unto death.”

You say, “Well, that’s the historical context of this church. Does this in some sense apply to America today?” The answer, unfortunately, is yes. I have in my library a book entitled, “The Criminalization of Christianity.” It is a book that details the desire of some, and particularly our courts, to try to criminalize all public expressions of Christianity in what is called the public square. More than that, as I stand here today, one of our senators has added an amendment to a bill to fund the war regarding hate speech, and this hate speech law basically says that if you are found saying something that could be deemed hateful against any identifiable group, you can be imprisoned, and you can be tried as a criminal, because now speech can be criminalized. That ought to be scary. That is today as I speak. Now some of you may be hearing this message at a later time and maybe things will have changed because it is not yet passed, but that’s what one of our senators has done. He’s added that to an Iraq funding bill – hate speech.

Well, what’s that all about? I thought I would look at the prototype of this in Canada. This is the Canadian law. It’s under advocating genocide. That’s an interesting place to put hate speech, and it says, “Everyone who, by communicating statements other than in private conversation, willfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of an indictable offense and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or an offense punishable on summary conviction.” Now this, of course, is written because what has been outlawed in Canada is any criticism or disagreement with homosexuality.

I asked a Canadian pastor, as I always do, and did again this summer of a different Canadian pastor, “Can you still read Romans Chapter One, in a church in Canada?” and he said, “It depends on who is present. If no one is present, and if no one reports you, it may be okay.”

In Germany, by the way, where I was last week, the church basically has simply acquiesced and says it refuses to comment on homosexuality because of the laws that would imprison pastors if they did.

Now you think, for example, of California. In the public school system there is what is known the “school safety and violence prevention act.” Well, everybody wants to prevent violence, right? The intent of this law, and it quotes it here, states that “school personnel are to be trained to detect children who may have the potential of someday displaying discriminatory or prejudicial attitudes, and to instruct teachers to refer these children for re-education or appropriate counseling.” Now it also says, however, that “sexual orientation shall not include pedophilia.” In other words, you can disagree with pedophilia, but you can’t disagree with a homosexual agenda, or else you’ll receive appropriate counseling.

I just marvel at all of this because the folks who make these kinds of laws are absolutely insistent that freedom of speech should no longer be allowable, even in churches. For example, regarding that law in Washington that I told you about, there was another senator who argued that it should include an exemption for churches, but the senator who introduced the legislation absolutely insisted and manipulated so that that would not be included.

Now, where does this all leave us? It’ll be interesting to find out because when secularism has its way it gives broad, expansive First Amendment rights to pornographers, and to people who have obscenity. They will invite even the president of a country, such as Iraq (Iran?), to their universities, but they will exclude anyone who doesn’t fall into line with gender issues.

Well, that’s America, and I say that without any fear and without any sense of discouragement at all, except to warn you where this nation is going.

Now, I told you that the first part of this message was going to be dark, and that it was going to be discouraging. Now the sun is going to begin to shine and the glory of God is going to captivate us. Aren’t you ready for that about now? [applause] Isn’t that wonderful?

Notice what Jesus says to the church at Smyrna. Just notice what he says. First of all he says (number one), “Do not fear.” This is verse ten. His first promise is a promise of peace. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you, not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” God says, “I am willing to give you my peace.” In the midst of suffering, in the midst slander, in the midst of being marginalized, in the midst of people saying, “You must close your mouths regarding certain things,” God says, “I give you peace.” And notice who gives it – “…the first and the last, the one who was dead and is alive forevermore. Amen.”

The second promise is a promise of purpose. There is a reason for all of this. “The devil is going to cast some of you into prison that you may be tested.” (verse ten)
Oh, so this doesn’t happen simply willy-nilly. I mean, you know, the devil is going to throw you into prison, but God has a purpose in this, “that the trial of your faith being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ,” so you have something to give Jesus when he returns. The faith that he birthed in your heart, that you allowed to grow, is a faith that is more precious than gold, tried by fire.

This is a separate discussion, but I am amazed – not amazed, but I should observe that Jesus did not castigate the church. He doesn’t say, “Now, if you had prayed more you wouldn’t have this kind of persecution because you’d have a government that would be more favorable, and God would remove all persecution, and you’d be able to worship freely, and Christians would be honored and they would become a part of the society without any persecution. It is your fault.” No, Jesus said, “You are being led to this for my purpose, to test you, to find out what is in your heart. What do you deem to be infinitely valuable - your own life, your vocation or me?” So the second promise is one of purpose.

The third promise is one of control. You’ll notice I’m still in verse ten and he says, “Be faithful unto death. The devil will throw you into prison for ten days.” What does that refer to? That may refer to a very limited time of persecution. That’s possible. On the other hand the expression ten is sometimes used symbolically in scripture. It may even refer to ten periods of persecution because, believe it or not, these seven churches seem to represent seven periods of church history. There are remarkable parallels. You see, Smyrna would represent the period from about the time of the death of the apostles all the way to about 313 A.D. when the persecution ended, and there were ten waves of persecution that the church endured until the coming of Constantine. I believe it ended with the persecution of Diocletian who moved against the Christians in a vicious, vicious, cruel manner.

And so it says, “Be faith unto death because you’re going to be thrown into prison for ten days.” Again, whether it’s a literal ten days or whether or not it is ten periods, here’s the point. The length of time of the persecution is determined by Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ says that the persecution is going to be ten days, there is no combination of demons on earth that can make it eleven, because he has said it is going to be ten. [applause] Yeah, you can clap if you agree with that.

Jesus says, “Don’t you understand that when I throw you into the furnace I always keep my hand on the thermostat, and the heat and the temperature is determined by me? It’s determined by me.” So, the purpose is to test you. The purpose is to see whether or not you are going to be intimidated. The purpose is to see whether or not you are willing to sacrifice your job for principles that honor me. There’s a method in the madness. Persecution has its purpose.

And then notice one other promise, and that is simply this - the promise of victory. “To the person who overcomes,” and here it’s presented as if all believers are expected to be over comers, it says, “be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” I believe the same crown is promised to those who love Jesus Christ’s appearing, and I hope that you do love Jesus Christ’s appearing, by the way. If you don’t, you probably are not a true believer. “To all those who love his appearing,” you’ll notice it says, “I will give you the crown of life,” and then I’ll comment in a moment about “the one who conquers (this is the end of the section) will not be hurt by the second death.” I’ll give you the crown of life.

Now, think of who it is who said this. That’s why it’s significant that the letter opens with “These are the words of the first and the last who died and came to life.” Jesus said, “You are being persecuted unto death. Well, just know that I also was killed by religion – a false religion – and these false religionists put me to death, but be encouraged, because I was dead and am alive,” and because he lives we shall live also. Don’t you see that there is victory in all of this, because eternity is coming?

If I were ever asked to speak in Iraq, if I were ever asked to speak in the Sudan or Indonesia to small groups of Christians huddling together under persecution, this is the passage that I would preach, and hopefully, I would preach it even if I would be imprisoned. That would be a badge of honor to suffer for his name.

Now, as we conclude today, I have three bottom lines that I need to give you. You know that when I preach I always give you the bottom line, and sometimes there are two bottom lines and sometimes there are three. Well, you say, “Technically there should really be only one bottom line. Right?” Well, that’s all right. When you come to Moody Church you get a few of them.

Number one, keep in mind that even when we are in the hands of Satan, we are in the hands of God. You ask, “Where is that in the text?” Well, your Bible is open before you. Notice what it says. “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison.” They look at the retaliation, they look at the hatred in the faces of those who want to destroy them, and they are looking at the devil. Yes, the devil may do it, but does that mean we’re in the hands of the devil? Does that mean we wring our hands and we say, “Oh, you know this attack has come to me from Satan.” No, perhaps it has come to us from Satan, but even when we are in the hands of the devil, ultimately we are in God’s hands because, as you’ve heard me say many times the words attributed to Martin Luther, “Even the devil is God’s devil,” and when God says the persecution is ten days, it’ll be ten days because God is in charge. Wow!

Jesus is stronger than Satan. In fact, in the presence of the sovereign God, Satan is but a puff of wind that God could crush if he chose to do so, but he doesn’t do it because, believe it or not, the devil serves God’s purposes. And once we have that understanding, we pray in faith when we pray warfare prayers. We pray with great praise because we know the triumph of Jesus and that, even when we’re in the devil’s hands, we are really in the hands of God.

Second, nothing that is done to us, or nothing that can be done to us – let me put it that way – is worse than what happened to Jesus. Jesus was crucified and he was dead and is alive. Now, let’s look at the text – the very last phrase – that I referred to a moment ago. “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” What is the second death? The second death is mentioned in Revelation chapter 20 and there it says, “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” Isn’t that wonderful? If they take your life, guess what! You can only die once and not twice. The wicked will die twice - the first time, the separation of the soul and body; the second time, the separation of the soul and God, and it will be in all of eternity in a place of torment and separation. That is the second death.

If you look at this passage of scripture in Revelation you find that all of these people have to show up at the great White Throne Judgment, and in that judgment there are rich and there are poor, and there old and there are young, and there are kings and there are paupers. It says people come from all over. The thing that unites them is that they lack righteousness. They lack enough righteousness to make it into heaven. That’s what unites them.

If you are here today and you’ve never trusted Christ, you’ve never transferred your trust to him to receive his gift of eternal life and his righteousness, you will stand with those doomed souls, and you will experience the second death. But for those who conquer, for those who trust Christ, and those who suffer well because they love him and suffer with joy and optimism, for those, they will not experience the second death. They will experience the first death, yes, but not the second.

So, third, we don’t have to win in this world. This is really refreshing. Let this be the “bottom” bottom line. We don’t have to win in this world in order to win in the next. You don’t have to win. Businessmen, you who are tempted to cut corners and to do what is wrong in order to advance yourself, stop doing that because you do not have to win in this world in order to win in the second. Do what is right no matter the cost. Don’t be like that man who sold me some camera equipment in Hong Kong. He said, “I’m a Christian, but I can’t run an honest business, because the person next door to me is selling the same cameras, and the person across the street is selling the same cameras, and I have to play by their rules.” I said to him, “Do you know what? You don’t have to.” “Well,” he said, “I need to live.” I said, “No, my brother, you don’t need to live. Millions of people have died. Did you know that? Did you know nobody needs to live? The whole history of the church is filled with martyrs who said, ‘I don’t have to live because I have a more important reason than life.’“ Where did this idea come from that you have to live? No, he’s going to die some day. You know, you don’t have to live.

Nurse, you who are tempted to accept a job where you’re going to be part of the abortions that are taking place in your hospital, stand up for principle and say, “No.” You say, “Well, I’d get fired. I need a job.” No, you don’t. There are all kinds of people in America without jobs. Where did this idea come from that you need a job? Now I know that I’m being a little bit facetious today. Maybe I’m feeling some wild oats up here; I don’t know, but my point is simply this. Young person, stand up for Christ in school, and if you get ridiculed and so forth, know that the whole history of the church has been ridicule.

Why do we think we are exempt? Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they’re going to persecute you.” Take it as a badge of honor. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake, for great is your reward in heaven.” Eternity is coming. Eternity is coming and it’s a long time. It’s a long time. It’s really long.

Do you remember that story that comes to us from the Boxer Rebellion in China? It was called the Boxer Rebellion because these people actually did calisthenics, and they were trying to rid China in the early 1900’s of western influence, and they came to a missionary school, and they laid a cross at the door of the school, and they said to the students, “If you walk out and you step on the cross, you’ll live because that means that you’re willing to desecrate it, but if you admire the cross and you have to walk around it, then that means that you honor the cross and you’ll be shot.” The first eight students stepped on the cross and they lived. The ninth was a girl who bowed in prayer and asked God to give her the grace to do what she knew she should do. She walked around the cross in honor and she was shot, and all the other students followed her example. Did she win in this life? No, I mean a nine-year old girl dead - what a waste, unless – unless Jesus is lord and eternity is coming. Then it wasn’t a waste.

You see, in the Bible, eternity isn’t only presented to us as a lot longer than time. We know that. In fact, it’s a lot longer than time. I suppose a mathematician might say it is an infinite number of times longer than time. It is also presented as a whole different quality of life, in the presence of Jesus, hearing him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” and living with God forever and ever in fulfillment and joy, and with other believers. Folks, don’t ever turn down an opportunity to represent Jesus, no matter what it costs.

“Be faithful unto death. I’ll give you the crown of life. He who overcomes will not be touched by the second death.”

Bottom line – I guess this is the “bottom, bottom” bottom line. We are on the winning side. We are on the winning side. [applause] Let us be clear in our witness in the city of Chicago and represent Jesus wherever we find ourselves.

Our Father, we ask in Jesus name that you’ll make us a transforming community. We pray that, along with the believers in Smyrna, you will give us endurance. Give us love and joy. Let us not be discouraged. We ask that, as marginalization or persecution or slander come to us because we are believers, you will help us, Lord, to rejoice in that. What a privilege it is to suffer for your name. Oh, Father, we do pray for this country only because we desire that the gospel will go to as many people as we can possibly reach. Make us a church that has a passion to share Christ around the world, and right here. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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