Topical Scripture: Revelation 2:8-11
I read this week about two men who tried to pull the front off a cash machine by running a chain from the machine to the bumper of their pickup truck. Instead of pulling the panel off the machine, they pulled the bumper off their truck. Scared, they left the scene and drove home, leaving the chain attached to the machine, the bumper attached to the chain, and their truck’s license plate attached to the bumper.
Did you hear about the man trapped in a vat of chocolate last week? The 21-year-old worker got into the vat to unplug it and became trapped waist deep in the chocolate. Co-workers, police, and firefighters were unable to free him until they thinned the chocolate. The man was treated at a local hospital for sore ankles and minor injuries, and released. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Sometimes our problems are the result of our stupidity, and we leave our license plate as proof. Sometimes we’re just stuck in the chocolate and it’s not our fault. When that happens, when we’re trapped in Smyrna with no apparent way out, we wonder where our loving and powerful God is. And why he doesn’t help us.
Where has God disappointed you? What pain has he not healed? What problem has he not solved? What burden has he not lifted? What has brought you to Smyrna today?
Background–living in the city called Bitter
Today we visit the second of the seven churches of Revelation and location of the modern-day city of Izmir. “Smyrna” is translated elsewhere in the NT as “myrrh.” Myrrh was a gum resin used to make perfume, oil, and embalming fluid. It was extremely bitter. This city was so named because myrrh was one of the products often traded through its port. For Christians living in ancient Smyrna, “myrrh” or bitterness was not just a name, but a reality.
Smyrna was a beautiful city. She owned a famous stadium and library, and boasted the largest public theater in Asia. The city also claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, with a famous monument dedicated to the poet. By contrast, the Christians living in Smyrna struggled for survival and lived in the most basic simplicity. They experienced none of her beauty and grandeur.
She was a wealthy city. The city lay on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and boasted an excellent harbor. While impoverished Christians struggled to support their families and earn the barest of essentials, the rest of their city lived in remarkable wealth and opulence.
She was a heathen city. She boasted temples to Apollo, Asklepios, Aphrodite, and Zeus. In 196 BC she became the first city in the world to erect a temple to the worship of Rome. In contrast, the Christians of this city met in humble, obscure places of worship, in the midst of some of the most stunning temples and religious shrines in the Roman world.
And she was a proud city. Smyrna was known as the proudest city in Asia Minor. She claimed to be the first in beauty, first in Caesar worship, and the birthplace of Homer. She was the center of all that was glorious and great. And so her people looked in utter contempt on the poor and humble Christians in their mist.
Facing the problem
Now, it’s not supposed to be that way. If we are right with God, good things are supposed to happen to us. When they don’t, we wonder why we should trust him.
If vandals broke into our new Community Life Center and our alarm system didn’t go off, we’d replace it. It didn’t protect us as it was supposed to. We didn’t get what we paid for.
Why be faithful to God when such things happen? Why not go along to get along? Why stand up to the emperor worship and pagan practices of the culture, if this is the thanks we get? Why be faithful to a God who doesn’t seem to be faithful to us?
We question God’s love, or we question his power. Surrounded by the opulent wealth of Rome, we wonder if the God worshiped by our fledgling band of Christians is so great. It’s hard to trust a power you cannot see or even prove exists, when the powers you can see are so enormous.
I’ve been reading David Marion Wilkinson’s novel, Not Between Brothers. It’s an epic narrative of the settling of Texas in the years up to and following the Alamo. I learned that the greatest problem Anglo settlers faced was the Cherokee. The reason we won the land was simple: the revolver. The Indians could match our single-shot rifles with their arrows, but they had no defense against the repeating pistol, the “fire that lasts forever,” as they called it. With no other recourse, they appealed to their Great Spirit to defeat this enemy, but our guns conquered their religion.
That’s how the Empire saw the faith of these first Christians. They prayed to an unseen God, while the Romans trusted the army and wealth they could measure. Why keep faith in a Lord you cannot prove exists, especially when it seems that such faith is losing the war?
Facts which help
Five facts may help. One: God hurts as we hurt.
He claims: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (v. 8). He has already defeated our greatest enemy, so we have nothing to fear when we follow him.
He knows our “affliction.” This word translates thlipsis, meaning “pressure,” a terrible burden which presses down and grinds us up. Jesus knows the burden we are bearing today. He knows our “poverty” as well. This is the word ptocheia, which means the person who has nothing at all. Jesus knows our financial needs, whatever they are.
He knows our “slander.” The word is literally “blasphemy.” The Jewish leaders hated Christians and slandered them in terrible ways. And he knows our pain. When he says “I know” (v. 9), he means that he feels their pain deeply. He has been wherever we are today.
Two: God knows our present, and he controls our future.
He flatly states, “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 the crown of life” (v. 10). He knows what will happen to them in the future, but promises a reward far greater than their present sufferings.
“Ten days” means a hard time of limited duration. God will never let us suffer beyond what we can stand: “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 stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
When we are faithful unto death, we will receive the “crown of life.” This is the stephanos, the wreath of victory given at the Olympic Games to the victorious. God will give us great reward when we have served him faithfully.
And so, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (v. 11) in hell. Rather, our faith will be rewarded eternally.
So God feels our pain and redeems our future. But I still wish the world wasn’t the way it is. I wish I didn’t have to visit Smyrna so often. So do most of you. Why doesn’t he simply remove innocent suffering and be done with it? Why doesn’t he perform a miracle to prevent natural disasters whenever they threaten us? Why doesn’t he step in to prevent our suffering from the sins of others?
A third fact may help: freedom requires consequences.
If God were to intervene every time our misused freedom were about to cause suffering, we would not be truly free. There is no freedom without consequences. If fast food restaurants displayed the same menus but began serving only fat free yogurt, our freedom would be only apparent and not real. Not to mention distasteful.
If God were to intervene every time a natural disaster were about to bring innocent suffering, the natural order would no longer exist. The same gravity which enables me to stand on this platform would cause me to sprain my ankle if I fell off of it. Baseball fans curse the same rain which the farmer welcomes with joy.
There are consequences to freedom, or we’re not free. Since God made us to worship him, and worship requires a choice, he’ll not remove our ability to choose. He could insulate us from the results of our choices, but that’s tantamount to removing our freedom. And that’s something he’ll never do.
Four: we don’t know what is best
If Joseph’s brothers hadn’t sold him into slavery, he could never have saved their lives and future nation. If Pharaoh had not sought the death of all Hebrew baby boys, Moses’ mother would not have left him to be adopted by Pharaoh’s own daughter. If Nebuchadnezzar had not required that the nation pray to him alone, Daniel would never have proven God’s power over a lion.
What if King George had been more lenient toward his subjects in the Colonies? If Mexican dictator Santa Anna had honored the Constitution of 1824 instead of declaring himself the Napoleon of the West and inciting the Texians to revolt, I might be delivering this message in Spanish today.
It is impossible for me to see the future consequences of present occurrences. What seems a tragedy of unredeemable proportion may lead to future good I cannot begin to comprehend in my grief. And good on earth cannot compare with good in heaven. I have absolutely no way of knowing how God is using present suffering for spiritual and eternal advance.
But I can believe that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). And that the God who sees tomorrow better than I can see today knows what is best for both.
Five: God is required to use all he permits
God never wastes a hurt. He can be trusted to redeem all he permits. Romans 8:28 reminds us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” He will use anything he allows for his glory and our good.
In fact, his holiness requires him to. Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” He is holy at all times, in all ways.
And so God must always do the right thing. Everything he causes must achieve a perfect and holy purpose. And everything he permits must do the same. He must use even our misused freedom for his larger glory and Kingdom’s good. Joseph’s brothers thought they were rid of him, but God used their rejection to save their family. Satan thought he won the battle when Jesus died, but that was the very moment when he lost the war.
The holy God of the universe is required by his own character to redeem all he permits. You and I may not see such good until we’re in glory, but we will see it there. We will be permitted to know all the ways God used and blessed our pain and sacrifice, our suffering and loss. We will understand why he allowed our loved one to die, our family to face such adversity, our service to encounter such opposition. He will always transform loss into gain. We may not understand how or why he is using bad for good, any more than we see the sun on a cloudy day. But we can see everything else in its light.
We have wrestled today with one of the greatest challenges Christianity faces. Know that God knows your pain and redeems your future. In the meanwhile, he must allow the consequences of freedom while using them for present and future good we cannot imagine. His holiness requires him to do so.
Now, where do you need these facts today? What problem has brought you to Smyrna?