Uncertain Times…Christ-Centered Churches – Rev 2 – Smyrna
Opening question-have you ever been given more than you can handle? That when what is set before you or put in your path is far too overwhelming or intimidating or more difficult than you can possibly handle? I’m sure we’ve all had lots of those situations in life-but I can think of a few examples in my life when I was given more than I could handle and I still shudder to think about them. The first was in college during the semester I had to take Abstract Algebra. This class really had nothing to do with algebra and was all about the abstract-that was the key word-and these really complicated proofs. And our professor would say hello, then turn his back to the board and write out equations for 45 minutes straight then turn around at the end of class and say-any questions? We were like everything. I can remember getting a 60% on an exam and being over-the-moon because that was an A. He had to grade it on a curve because none of us in class knew what we were doing and it was far more difficult than we could handle.
The second experience in life came when Monica and I went out for an anniversary dinner at a steakhouse in Dallas. We were living there when I was attending Dallas seminary and steakhouses in TX can sometimes serve a big habanero pepper alongside your steak and baked potato. I think it’s there to decorate the plate-but to impress Monica (it was our anniversary) I said I’m going to start off this meal by eating this pepper. So in one good bite I went for it-and instantly I knew it was a serious mistake! The heat in that pepper was way more than I could handle! My mouth was on fire. I gulped down my water, her water, probably tried to grab the water from the table next to us. My eyes were tearing up-it was so hot! And it literally seared my taste buds so I couldn’t even taste my steak that night! That habanero was more than I could handle! Maybe you’ve been there with spicy food too!
But being given more than you can handle isn’t just relegated to hard math and hot peppers-but those seasons of fear and uncertainty and challenges in life where you feel like you’ve been given far more than you can handle. Where what lies before you doesn’t seem like an obstacle to overcome or a hurdle to jump over, but a giant wall stopping you in your tracks. Being given more than you can handle could be a struggle you’re going through where there’s no end in sight, it could be the start of a new semester at school or college that feels intimidating, or the start of a new job or career that has you nervous and scared. It could be dealing with a hard or painful loss in your life where you don’t know how you’ll cope or a series of broken relationships where you have no idea how you’ll pull through. Or even a financial crisis that seems hopeless. As I said at the start, we’ve all been there and felt the fear of being given more than we can handle. Like why this, Lord? How did I end up here? I didn’t ask for this? And yet what is it we often hear-God won’t give you more than you can handle. Have you heard that before? Or has someone said that to you before? I’ve certainly heard it and I’ve scratched my head and thought-No, this is more than I can handle. I don’t think I can deal with this. I’m not sure I have enough strength to pull through. We all sort of realize what people mean when they say God won’t give you more than you can handle-as they’re trying to be encouraging and tell us we’ve got this, keep at it-but at some point we all inevitably face things in life that are more than we can handle, situations where there doesn’t seem to be a way out. That’s certainly what David is indicating in Ps 18:4-5. That clearly sounds like more than he can handle-so the promise of Scripture is not that we won’t go through those hard times we can’t handle, but that at all times, good or bad, God is our help and our strength. Listen to what David says-Ps 18:6; 32-36. David couldn’t handle it on his own-but God strengthened him so he could. It’s the same for you and me-and that’s our overarching theme this morning-Pt1:It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that He will help you handle all that you’ve been given. That statement is far more accurate, far more encouraging, and far more biblical. And that’s what we’re going to see at the next church in Revelation this morning. And that key word Resilient is going to will leap off the page!
Go ahead and open up your Bibles to Rev 2-or we’ll have it up on the screen-Rev 2:8. So the next church is in the city of Smyrna-and this is the only city of the 7 that still stands today and it’s known as Izmir in Turkey. Maybe you’ve been there-but it’s a beautiful city along the Aegean Sea. It’s about 35 miles north of Ephesus that we looked at last week-and like Ephesus it was a prominent port city. Within Izmir today you can see the ruins of the ancient city Smyrna (notice the parking garage in the background!) But Smyrna had a proud history of literature as it was where the Greek poet Homer was from who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. It also had a proud allegiance to Rome and was one of the first cities in Asia Minor to construct a temple to Caesar. Remember we talked about how Ephesus had that huge temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis, Smyrna had a temple dedicated to a man-Caesar-but Caesar thought of himself as a god. And one of John’s disciples named Polycarp was the leader of the church in Smyrna-he was one of the original recipients of this letter-but about 50 years later when he was an old man, he was arrested in Smyrna by not claiming that Caesar was a god and calling him lord. In fact, the historical account of the early church fathers from AD 155 record the arresting officer saying to Polycarp-Ante-Nicene Fathers, 40-41. We’ll come back to Polycarp’s story-but it’s so important to note that the leader of the church, the guy most likely reading this letter out loud to the rest of the congregation is going to apply the very words of this letter to his life 50 years later. Resilient!
So what does Jesus have to say-back to Rev 2:8. This is very important because Jesus is reminding them of His identity-the first and the last. And that is a direct statement that Jesus is God. Look at how God describes Himself in Isa 44:6. God is the first and the last-and that’s who Jesus is declaring Himself to be. Jesus is God-and there is no other god besides Him-especially not Caesar who the rest of the city was worshipping at the temple! But besides being the first and the last-look at what else Jesus says-Rev 2:8. And this is the heart of the gospel. Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins-but was then resurrected to new life so that we could be forgiven and saved and become the recipients of that same resurrected life in Him. This is the very essence of our hope. That despite death-which we all face and will all experience-Jesus conquered death. It doesn’t have the final word anymore-life does. And that hope is what will inspire the people of Smyrna as they are preparing to face one of the toughest seasons of their life, when they are given far more than they can handle.
Look at how Jesus describes it-Rev 2:9. So they are facing some serious challenges as a church. Trials, tribulation, affliction, poverty and slander. This wasn’t the fancy new church building down the street with a cool coffee bar. This was a poor, beat-up group of believers huddled together who had suffered much. That word for tribulation is the same word that describes the crushing pressure used to extract juice from grapes. So as a church they were pressed and crushed from all sides. Since Smyrna was a city that worshipped Caesar, these believers would have likely been shunned and even excluded from employment thus creating their poverty. But they were also crushed under the persecution of the Jews. And Jesus makes it clear that these Jews in Smyrna weren’t following Him. They had not embraced Him as the Messiah or received the saving truth of the gospel. Instead they opposed Jesus, slandered the church, and therefore Jesus calls a spade a spade-they are a synagogue of Satan. They’re not being used for God’s purposes, even though as Jews they would have claimed to worship God. Jesus says they’re being used for the devil’s purposes and causing harm to His people-generating this slander they’re facing. But notice how Jesus doesn’t have any negative things to say about the church in Smyrna. It’s 1 of 2 churches in the list where He doesn’t give them any rebuke or correction. So they’re being faithful, standing strong, holding on for Jesus-even though it’s costing them greatly. And in light of that you would think they deserve some good news now. You would think that for being so dedicated and faithful Jesus ought to bring some blessings their way and remove the sufferings. But that doesn’t happen. Jesus doesn’t have any bad things to say about Smyrna, but bad times are coming to Smyrna-even worse than what they’ve already experienced.
Look at Rev 2:10a. Definitely not what they wanted to hear from Jesus or probably expected to hear from Him. Put yourself in their shoes-can you imagine hearing this letter read for the first time? You’re already feeling the effects of the tribulation you’ve gone through, the relentless pressure and hardship, ruined reputations from the slander, the struggles of poverty and affliction-and now instead of things taking a turn in the right direction, you’ve just been told they’re getting worse! Out of the frying pan and into the fire! And maybe you’ve been there before too-that just on the heels of coming out of a tough season in life, having faced what seemed insurmountable, that just when you needed some relief, a new series of struggles slams into you full force! The news talks about a second wave of the coronavirus coming, maybe you’re experiencing that second wave of suffering coming into your life! That was the believers in Smyrna! So there’s no doubt that this was far more than they could handle. To be tossed into prison, to be tested, and have another round of tribulation. How would they survive that? Maybe you’re wondering how you’re going to survive the stuff you’re going through right now. But what is Jesus sayig-Do not fear what you are about to suffer. And that’s not just a pep talk or some sort of wishful statement-Hang in there, you’ve got this, you’ll do great. This is Jesus Himself saying do not fear-and He can say that because He’s been there! Look at Heb 4:15-16. To lift our eyes and our hearts to the throne of grace and find that strength we need in the face of suffering. Or what did Jesus say-John 15:18-21. Suffering and persecution aren’t abnormal things in this world, they aren’t the exception or that rare anomaly that happens every once in a while. Jesus says suffering and persecution will happen because you belong to Him. That’s how it works in this world. Look at John 16:33. What incredible words of hope-and that’s what brings us back to Pt1. Don’t convince yourself you’ve got this. Admit you don’t-but trust in the fact that He’s got it and He’s there helping you. Jesus is saying-We’re in this together. I’ve been there. I’ve stood where you’ve stood, faced what you’ve faced-and I’m here to help you through it. It is more than you can handle, but my power is more than enough for all you’ll need!
Back to Rev 2:10. Jesus is telling them back then-and He’s telling us today-to not fear but instead remain faithful. To be resilient! And He’s not telling us or them to do something impossible! Jesus isn’t setting the bar too high. It may be more than you can handle, it was more than they could handle-but with His strength, in His power, through His help, together you and the Lord can abundantly handle it. And that brings us to Pt2:It’s not that suffering isn’t painful or difficult, but that God promises it’s only temporary. Jesus made it very clear that their suffering wasn’t going to last forever. It wasn’t some never-ending reality they would have to endure. There was a limit to it-remember how Jesus said it-Rev 2:10. Ten days-just a little longer than a week. Hold on for 10 days, be faithful, be resilient for 10 days. Now Bible scholars aren’t sure if Jesus means a literal 10 days-as numbers can often be symbolic in Revelation-so whether it’s 10 physical 24 hour days or just a designated period of time-the point is that there’s an end in sight, there is a limit that Jesus has stated. Their suffering and imprisonment-no doubt painful-is still only temporary. Because what’s the result of their faithfulness and resiliency? The crown of life. And compare that with 10 days of suffering-there’s no comparison. It’s like comparing your 15 minutes of fame versus a lifetime of peace and happiness. Looking back who would trade away a lifetime of peace for 15 minutes? Likewise, who would trade away the never-ending crown of life just to avoid 10 days of suffering? And this isn’t a literal crown you on your head-as if some hard metal crown might start giving you a headache or get itchy! The crown of life refers to eternal life in the presence of Jesus in the new heavens and the new earth that are being prepared where you are crowned with His glory forever. The crown of life is what mankind has been waiting for; it’s what mankind is destined for. And being faithful for 10 days of suffering is worth it. Back to Pt2. And this is where we return to Polycarp’s story. I said that he was the one most likely reading this letter to the church-so he undoubtedly heard what Jesus is saying about remaining faithful and resilient in the face of affliction-Ante-Nicene Fathers, 41.
And Polycarp was burned in the fire in Smyrna. But he knew the difference between temporary suffering and eternal life-the flames would burn for an hour-yes a painful hour-but an hour-our destiny lasts forever! Do you and I know that difference? Are you and I willing to endure a season of suffering and struggle because we know what’s in store for us eternally in Christ? That’s the difference this letter is highlighting so clearly-suffering is to a season, life with Christ is forever. And it’s in light of that truth how Jesus began this letter. Remember what He said-Rev 2:9a. They were poor in this world, they were afflicted and pressed down on every side, filled with tribulations-but they were rich in Christ because they had a relationship with Him, new life in Him and an eternal inheritance in Him that could never, ever, ever be taken away. Their earthly poverty was a drop in the bucket compared to the oceans of blessing they had in Christ. And it seems they never lost sight of that no matter how their circumstances seemed more than they could handle.
So ask yourself this morning-What are you facing that seems to be more than you can handle? Maybe you’re facing affliction in your life and feel crushed on all sides. Maybe there are people slandering you and spreading false things about you and your character. Maybe you’re in a season of financial struggle and poverty. Maybe you’re facing the pain of broken relationships or the physical pain of health concerns. It could be all sorts of things. I don’t think we’re ever in a shortage of dealing with more than we can handle! But we can’t forget that we have a God who helps us handle all that’s been given to us. We have a Savior who knows exactly what we’re going through and He promises to be with us right in the midst of those things-giving us His power and His strength which is more than enough for all those things. He says-Be faithful even unto death and I will give you the crown of life. What an incredible promise! I was reading this commentary on Revelation this week in preparing for this passage. And it’s a good one-written in 2016 so it’s fairly recent-but listen to these words-Christ-centered Exposition Revelation, 48. That was written 4 years ago-and I think we all see how true that is in 2020! Will you be faithful? Will you be resilient? Will we be faithful and resilient as a church?