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AN OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE!

“AN OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE!”
Revelation 22:1-21

(To listen to this audio message, please click here.)

Some time ago, my wife and I were invited to a birthday party. When I received the invitation, I had no idea what the evening would involve. All I knew was the location – a retreat center called Faraway on the Longbranch Peninsula. But the fact that we were going to be with friends made it appealing. So, we said, “Yes!” Then the evening arrived. To our delight, transportation was arranged for us, so that rather than driving ourselves, we were able to relax in the comfort of a friend’s “Caddy.” But there was more! Stepping out of the car, we found ourselves facing one of the most beautiful waterfront mansions we’d ever seen. The evening then began with a tour – delicate antique furniture, embroidered bedspreads from China, precious inlaid tiles in the bathroom. Each room was a masterpiece of interior design. Then dinner was served – one of the most delicious meals we’d had in months. It truly was an evening to remember.

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As I reflected on it, I couldn’t help but compare it to another invitation we have received. On this trip transportation is also provided; we will be surrounded by Christian friends; and we will dine in the most glorious mansion anyone has ever seen. But there will also be some striking differences. This time we won’t have to return home afterwards. For we will be at home forever! This time we can eat all that we want without worrying about our waistlines. And best of all, the Lord Jesus will be our host at this meal! As I reflected upon it, I wondered, how could anyone in their right mind refuse an invitation like this?

The invitation I’m referring to is the one given in this, the final chapter of Revelation. The key word here is “come.” This is not a new word in the Bible. When Noah finished building the ark, God invited him, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, and be safe.” When Israel turned to idols in Isaiah’s day, God urged them, “Come now, let us reason together, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” When John baptized Jesus, he said of Him, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Andrew and Peter wanted to know more. So, they asked Him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus invited them, “Come and see.”

The Bible is full of invitations to “come.” But the invitation in Revelation 22 is unique. Actually, there are two invitations in this chapter. The first is Christ’s offer to sinners, “Come . . . take the free gift of the water of life.”

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The second is John’s reaction to everything he has seen: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” Isn’t that a wonderful way to end such a serious book? For weeks, we have witnessed many terrible, heartbreaking truths. But now the curse of sin is lifted and “whosoever will” may come and freely enjoy the glory of God’s kingdom. No one need suffer the judgments mentioned in this book. That’s something people bring upon themselves because of their unwillingness to repent and turn to Jesus. Everyone is invited to enjoy the blessings of this offer. So, to help us understand what it involves, John emphasizes three key facts about it.

1. THE BLESSINGS OF THE INVITATION

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young once sang a song about man’s craving to “get back to the Garden.” While we may not recognize it in ourselves, that desire is real! Every philosophical, political, or religious movement is nothing more than man’s feeble attempt to recover what was lost in Genesis 3. But the good news John announces in this last chapter of the Bible is that Paradise Lost will soon be Paradise regained! What we forfeited due to sin, God will restore by His grace. To illustrate that, John describes four blessings we will enjoy in the New Jerusalem.

First, the fullness of God’s Spirit. John says in verse 1, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.” This is a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit who is poured out on everyone who believes in Christ. One reason for this conclusion is the origin of this water. It comes from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Another reason is the promise of Jesus in John 7:37, ”If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me . . . streams of living water will flow from within him.” To what was Jesus referring? John explains, “By this He meant the Spirit, Whom those who believed in Him were later to receive.” In other words, just as Jesus will be the light of that city, so His Spirit will be our source of physical and spiritual life.

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Second, access to the Tree of Life. Verse 2 continues, “On each side of the river stood the Tree of Life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Someone has said that the history of mankind revolves around three trees – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which brought death upon all of humanity when our first parents broke God’s commandment and ate of its fruit in the Garden. The second tree is the Cross of Calvary on which our Savior died to pay for our sins. The third tree is the Tree of Life that will grow along the River of Life in the center of the city. Those who have read Genesis 3 will remember this tree. For it was from this tree that man was banished. God posted cherubim at the east of the Garden with a flaming sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life, so that man could not eat of its fruit and live forever in his fallen condition.

Consequently, the presence of the Tree of Life in new Jerusalem is one of the strongest testimonies to God’s full forgiveness and our complete salvation from sin. For what was taken away from us because of sin now brings eternal life to everyone who enters this city. Other details about this tree are also interesting. One is its fruit. It bears twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year. That means there will be food in heaven – delicious food, of which we can eat all that we want without any worries of getting fat. In fact, it is in eating this fruit that we gain power to live forever.

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Another detail is its leaves. It says they will be for “the healing of the nations.” What does this mean? Will there be disease in heaven? No, the word can be translated “health.” That is, just as its fruit gives life to all who eat it, so its leaves maintain the health of those already healthy. Finally, look at its abundance. Genesis makes it sounds as if there was only one tree of life in the Garden. But not in New Jerusalem! This tree will flourish throughout the city!

Henry Morris writes, “The tree is not rare but prolific, growing in profusion all over the world. In the New Jerusalem, it grows along the esplanade in the center of the golden streets and lines both banks of the cascading river. Presumably, outside the city, it grows along the shores of all the tributaries of the mighty river, as they spread out around the world. The need to continually partake of its life-giving fruit will be a testimony to the people of the New Earth that our Creator and Savior is Himself the source of life and breath and all things. This knowledge and requirement will never become a burden but will always remain a joy and a delight.”

Third, fulfillment in our work. People wonder, “What will we do in heaven? Sit around and strum our harps forever?” Certainly, music will play a major role in heaven’s worship. But John says we will also be busy doing other things. First, he says we “will serve Him.” What does that mean? Are we going to have to work in heaven? Yes and no. Yes, we will be actively engaged in serving Christ. That’s been our calling from the beginning. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Those who like to garden can appreciate what a pleasure that was, especially without weeds to frustrate their efforts. Thus, it will be on the New Earth! It will involve none of the drudgery involved in today’s work. For what turned man’s work into labor and sorrow was the curse. But Revelation 22:3 promises that there will no longer be a curse. Hal Lindsay says that the service we give to the Lord will be as laborious as a Bride making the bed for her new Groom on their honeymoon.

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Compare it to your hobbies. Most of us have activities we enjoy doing in our spare time – sewing, painting, reading, writing, playing an instrument. These activities are pleasant because there is no pain or stress involved in doing them. So, will it be in heaven! God will let you explore interests you had in this life, but never had the time or money to pursue. Or maybe He will give you brand-new talents you always wished you had and let you cultivate them for His glory.

By the way, this is one reason we can afford to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and forego other things we’d like to do. Personally, I would love to have season tickets to the Seattle Seahawks’ games, a summer cabin at the ocean, a boat to enjoy on the weekends, and every evening free to spend with my family. But, like many of you, I forego those things. Not because they are wrong, but because there isn’t time in this life to do both everything I want and everything I should. Does that make me sad? No, and why not? Because I’m going to live forever and have all of eternity to pursue the things I enjoy. In fact, given that this is the only life in which we can sacrifice ourselves for Christ, wouldn’t it be foolish to try to get everything I want today? Remember –

Only one life, ‘twill soon be passed; Only what’s done for Christ will last!

The second thing we will do is “reign forever and ever.” There’s no indication here over whom we will rule, but I’m convinced that these are more than idle words dropped onto the page. If John says that we will reign with Christ, then there must be someone who needs ruling. 1 Corinthians 6:3 gives us a hint, for there Paul writes, “do you not know that we shall judge angels?” Another writer suggests that there may be intelligent life on other planets that God will reveal in eternity. In his space trilogy, C. S. Lewis imagines Perelandra and Malacandra, two planets with intelligent creatures living on them who have not rebelled against the will of God. But, of course, the definite answer to this, like so many other questions, won’t be answered until we arrive in heaven.

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Finally, the presence of Christ. This will be our greatest joy in heaven. John says “we will see His face.” Theologians call this the Beatific Vision, for there is no sight more beautiful to human eyes than the face of God. You ask, “Is it the face of God the Father or God the Son?” Jesus answered this in John 14:8-9. Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus explained, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Colossians 1:15 reiterates this. Referring to Jesus, it says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” God is Spirit, and therefore invisible. But that won’t detract from your heavenly joy. For in Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Colossians 2:9)

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Fanny Crosby, the writer of “Blessed Assurance” and many other great hymns, said she didn’t mind being born blind because in heaven, the first thing she would see is the face of Jesus. In fact, in giving her testimony at a conference where Dwight L Moody spoke, she shyly admitted, “There is a hymn I’ve written but never published. I call it my soul’s poem. I repeat it when my heart is troubled, for it brings comfort to me. She then recited it while the audience wept: “Someday the silver cord will break, and I no more as now shall sing; but O, the joy when I awake within the palace of the King and I shall see Him face to face, and tell the story – saved by grace!” At age 95, her wish was granted. She awoke in heaven and the first face she ever saw was the face of Jesus. Imagine her joy!

2. THE CONDITIONS OF THE INVITATION

John continues in verse 6, “Then the angel said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the profits, sent His angel to show His servants the things that must soon take place. Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.’” First, the angel emphasizes the trustworthiness of this invitation. In fact, he confirms the reliability of the entire Bible by emphasizing that the same God who inspired this book inspired the prophets of old. But, he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to pinpoint two conditions for enjoying the blessings of this book.

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The first is: Keep the words of the prophecy in this book. This means more than keeping a copy of the Bible on your bookshelf or nightstand. It means to stand up for the truth of this book and put it into practice. In fact, to demonstrate how vital our loyalty to this book is, John adds in verses 18-19, (Let the followers of Joseph Smith and other cult leaders beware!), “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the Tree of Life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

This was a common practice of scribes when recording royal decrees. Anyone who added to the King’s words was warned that he would stand before the king in judgment. But this warning label is far more severe. John warns us that our very entrance into God’s kingdom is at stake, determined by what we do with this book. Will we believe it and obey it? Or will we ignore it to our eternal hurt?

The second condition is: Worship Jesus alone. John himself is corrected about this. He confesses in verse 6, “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it. I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers, the prophets, and all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” The only acceptable form of worship in heaven is that which is directed toward the Father and the Son. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” He also added in another place. “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father. (John 5:23) John’s experience points out two eternal dangers that are at work today.

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The first is the danger of hero worship. Most leaders are by nature charismatic personalities. Otherwise, people wouldn’t be likely to follow them. But there is a danger in admiring them too much. And that’s what’s happening in Christian circles today. People are so hungry for someone to follow that they develop little fan clubs around their favorite religious artist or Christian speaker. And that’s wrong! Not only does it rob God of the glory that He alone deserves; but we inevitably discover that our idols have feet of clay. I once attended a Bible study where a woman said, “O, I don’t know what I’d do if I ever heard my pastor swear! I think I’d lose my faith!” And I thought, “Then get ready to lose your faith, sister, because I know some things about your pastor you’d never believe.”

The second is the danger of being carried away by emotion. One of my seminary professors used to warn us prospective pastors, “Gentlemen, do not entrust the ministry of the church to artsy people.” I wondered how he could be so harsh. But now I understand his concern. Human emotions are so powerful that unless brought under the control of godly wisdom, they can lead to all sorts of dangerous behavior – worship of angels, visions of giant “Jesuses, as well as unethical and immoral behavior. More than once I’ve heard Christians excuse their immorality by saying, “It feels so right; it can’t be wrong!” But that’s when we need to remember that Satan is an angel of light who can just as easily counterfeit our emotions to deceive us as he can false doctrine.

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3. THE ASSURANCES OF THE INVITATION

Finally, in verses 12 to 19, John moves from blessings and conditions to assurances of Christ’s return and our invitation to heaven.

His first assurance is that it is near. Three times in this chapter, Jesus promises, “I am coming soon!” One example is verse 12 where He promises, “Behold, I am coming soon. My reward is with Me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the Tree of Life, and may go through the gates into the city.”

This confuses people. “After all,” they think, “it’s been 2000 years since Jesus made this promise. If He was coming soon, why hasn’t He arrived yet?” The answer is found in the meaning of the word “soon.” The word means “suddenly.” Jesus wasn’t promising that He’d come immediately. He was warning us that when He does come, it will be suddenly and without warning. It is what Paul meant when he said that the Day of the Lord will come without warning “like a thief in the night.” In other words, when the things predicted by this book begin to happen, they will happen rapidly, leaving no time to repent. So, repent now!

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That also helps to explain Jesus’ statement in verse 11: “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.” Jesus isn’t advising people to continue in sin and be lost. The Bible says He is not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. The point here is that when He returns, there won’t be any time for repentance. Those who have chosen to be holy will continue to be holy forever, whereas those who refuse His invitation will be lost forever. So, again, the time to repent is now, not then!

My next-door neighbor told me about an experience he had. He was helping his friend repair his roof when suddenly a piece of lumber knocked him off balance and sent him crashing to the ground. The fall fractured his collar-bone and nearly broke his neck. I asked him, “What did you learn from the accident?” He said. “I learned one thing for sure. I’ve always heard that a person’s life flashes before their eyes at a moment like that. But that isn’t true! I didn’t have time to think about anything. If I hadn’t known the Lord, I could have died and been lost forever! I realized that the time to make your peace with God is now!”

His second assurance is that it is free. Verse 16 says, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright Morning Star.” And then He adds in verse 17, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let them take the free gift of the water of life.” In other words, there is absolutely nothing you and I can do to earn our way to heaven. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Titus 3:5 adds, “Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to His mercy, He saved us.”

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In fact, notice how the Bible ends in verse 21. John says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” That’s very different from how the Old Testament ends. There Malachi warns that Elijah is coming and will “strike the earth with the curse” unless his readers repent. The Old Testament speaks of law and judgment, but here we read of grace. Why? Because it’s only through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that anyone can be saved. Salvation is a free gift of God that can only be received humbly by faith.

Yet, even though salvation comes freely to us, it came at a high price to God who gave the life of His Son to purchase our salvation. Furthermore, there is often great soul-searching and spiritual wrestling before a genuine commitment to Christ is made. Some Christians give people the impression that all they have to do is bow their heads, say a quick prayer, and “presto- chango,” you’re on your way to heaven. But that is not true. Verse 17 says it is those who are “thirsty” who may freely drink of the water of life. That means there must be a genuine recognition of our need for Christ and a sincere hunger for the salvation He can give us, in order for the change to be real. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they shall be filled.”

By the way, be sure to notice from whom the invitation comes. John writes, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” That’s a reminder of our partnership with God in the work of evangelism. The Spirit is God, and He faithfully does His part by convicting the people of sin and drawing them to Christ. But we, the Bride of Christ, also have a part to play in the salvation of others. We are to be witnesses to Christ and invite others to believe in Jesus as often as we can.

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Or put another way, William Carey’s pastor was wrong! When the great missionary suggested taking the Gospel to India, he was abruptly told, “Sit down young man. If God chooses to convert the heathen, He will do it without the help of you or me.” But that’s bad theology! Here God reminds us that if someone gets into heaven, it will be because we’ve invited them. We are tools of the Holy Spirit, and our words, if they are God’s Words, have great power over people. Therefore, whatever the Holy Spirit accomplishes, He will accomplish through us. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” Therefore, prayerfully look for someone who needs that invitation and extend it to them today.
Remember, there are only two things that you can take to heaven with you: 1) Your Christ-like character developed over a lifetime; and 2) Another person with whom you have shared the Gospel and invited to heaven.

(To download this written message and its discussion questions, click here.)

 

Philadelphia: The Great Little Church!

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(To listen to or download the audio version of this lesson, click HERE.)

Study #7: ‘’Philadelphia—The Great Little Church”

Proverbs 30:26 raises a question: What is a coney? The verse reads, “Coneys are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags.” Some versions translate it “rabbits” or “badgers.” But the best research indicates that this was the Syrian hyrax, a strange little rodent about the size of a guinea pig. Sometimes it is called a “rock rabbit.” But it is actually unrelated to any other animal. Its teeth and bones resemble those of a rhinoceros. But that’s as far as the similarity goes. The coney is a helpless creature—easy prey for hawks, snakes, and other predators. So how does this little fellow stay alive? That’s the interesting part. He hides himself in the crags of the rocks, often on the side of a cliff.

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Why are we to learn from this Proverb? That we too are weak, helpless, and vulnerable to spiritual attack. So how do we protect ourselves? The coney knows. The answer is by hiding ourselves in the cleft of the Rock—our Lord Jesus Christ.

You see, contrary to popular belief, it’s not bad to be weak, as long as you’re protected. And we are in Jesus Christ! Believing in Jesus does not eliminate life’s dangers, but it does make us eternally secure in the midst of them. In fact, the Bible says our weaknesses are an advantage in serving Christ. 2 Corinthians 12:9 is a good example. There the Lord tells Paul why he’s suffered what he has. “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” So Paul concludes, “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” In other words, when we’re weak, we’re forced to depend on Christ instead of ourselves, and that’s where true strength is found. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary, wrote: “God uses men who are weak and feeble enough to lean on Him.”

But our primary example is the great little church of Philadelphia, described in Revelation 3:7-13. The city was 30 miles southwest of Sardis in Asia Minor and built in 189 BC by King Attalus of Peramum whose nickname was Philadelphia due to his special love for his brother. So that became the name of the city. It was also located in an earthquake zone with agriculturally rich soil because of the volcanic ash that was frequently deposited in the area.

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As for the church, Jesus said they only had a “little strength.” This was because they didn’t have the large membership or great resources of churches like Ephesus and Laodicea. But the truth is most of the great churches throughout history have not been large or wealthy. The churches of the great Puritans like John Robinson and Jonathan Edwards were churches of fewer than 200 people. In fact, 60 percent of churches in America today average 89 members. Because it is always just a remnant who truly love Christ and His Word. And yet, when welded to the iron bar of His strength, the copper wire of their weakness made the church at Philadelphia the most dynamic church in the Revelation.

The question is: Will we learn from them? Will we admit our frailty and rely on Jesus alone for our strength? To understand what made them one of the great little churches of history, there are four facts to recognize about them.

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  1. The Nature of Their Greatness

Jesus begins the letter like this in Revelation 3:7-8, ““And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”

Two things to notice here. First, notice how they were corrected. They weren’t, were they? Like the persecuted church of Smyrna, Jesus found nothing bad to say about them. Instead, He speaks words full of encouragement and blessing, reminding us how tender and compassionate our Savior is toward those who do their best for Him. Some of us were raised in negative households, where Mom or Dad always seemed to find fault with us. So it is difficult for us to think of God as being pleased with us. But He is, if we do our best for Him. He’s not a difficult Master to please. His expectations are always in direct proportion to the strength He gives us. “To whom much is given, much will be required.” But to those with only a little strength, only a little is expected of us. Psalm 103:13 is one of my favorite verses. “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust.”

The second thing to notice is how they were commended. They were commended for keeping God’s Word. You see, we live in an age when the uppermost thing in people’s minds is not right, but rights. A woman’s fundamental right to choose. A pornographer’s fundamental right to free speech. A homosexual’s fundamental right to promote his lifestyle. Of course, the world isn’t so quick to fight for the unborn’s fundamental right to life or our fundamental right to protest on their behalf. Because it’s rights, not right, people care about, making many Christians wonder, “Should I even bother saying anything? And do I have the right to push my beliefs on the rest of the population?” The answer is: Not only do we have a right to do so, we have a fundamental responsibility to speak the truth in love. After all, how kind is it to quietly stand by while an unwed mother doubles her pain by taking the life of her unborn child? Or how loving is it to say nothing as the LBGT community shortens their lives by sexually dangerous behavior?

stand-firmSo I say, even if no one listens to us, we have a responsibility to take a stand not for what is politically correct, but for what is good and right and decent. Or as Jesus credits them here, “You have pleased Me by fulfilling your fundamental responsibility to keep My Word.

They also did not deny Christ’s name. Why does that matter? Because just as godly wisdom is found only in the Word of God, supernatural power is found only in the name of Jesus. Think back to the crippled man Peter healed in Acts 3. The Sanhedrin asked him, “By what power have you done this?” Peter replied, “Be it known to you all…that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…this man stands here before you whole…Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

You say, “Isn’t that rather simplistic?” Just be faithful to God’s Word and God’s Son and God will bless?” I often meet that attitude in counseling sessions or planning meetings. People want to see change in their lives or growth in the church. But when you insist that they go back to square one and start again with holiness, honestly, and love, they’re angry.

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Like Namaan the leper, who was told to wash seven times in the Jordan River, they think, “It can’t be that simple! I’ve heard these things for years.” Yes, but have you been practicing them? Are you a doer as well as a hearer of the Word? My wife and I have made many mistakes, but 41 years later, I can testify that God has blessed us with more resources, more friends, and more family joy than we ever imagined. Simple obedience is the surest route to the blessing of God.

The truth is that it doesn’t take a lot of talent or charisma to be useful to God. In fact, those things can actually get in the way of serving Him. Instead, what we need do is give Him the little bit of strength we have, let Him match it with His greatness, and then explode it with divine power. That’s the secret to success with God. Determining to hold fast to His name and His Word no matter what comes your way. And that’s something you can do! You may have just a little strength, but a little is more than enough when God is involved.

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Someone has said, “The mighty oak was once just a little nut who held his ground.” That homey maxim is my philosophy of spiritual growth and ministry. Dig in your heels, hang on to God, and never let up until He blesses. The Philadelphians did that, and not only did they become one of the great churches of the Revelation, they are also the only church which has survived until today.

  1. The Source of Their Greatness

Each of the seven letters, you’ll remember, begins with a description of Christ intended to encourage the church in question. And this church is no exception. The only difference is that this description doesn’t come from the vision of Christ in chapter one. Why not? Because that was a vision of Christ preparing to judge the world. But the weak don’t need to hear about judgment. The unruly need to hear about judgment, but the weak need to be encouraged. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak.” So, in order to strengthen their confidence in them, in verse 7 Jesus emphasizes three encouraging truths about Himself.

He begins, “These things says He who is holy.” Throughout the New Testament, Christ’s Deity is proven by the fact that like the Father, He is holy. In John 6:69, when His superficial disciples began falling away, Peter assures Jesus, “We have believed and come to know that You are the holy One of God.”

What does that mean? The word “holy” means to be separate and distinct. It is the opposite of the idea espoused by America’s unofficial religion – the New Age movement. According to the New Age movement, God is the divine “force” which binds the universe together giving it its unity and direction. Nor is there any distinction between God and His creation. God is in everything and everything is a part of God. And it is at this point that Jesus has given us a mandate to stand up and defy our culture, “No, God is not synonymous with His creation. He infinitely higher and holier than the things He has made.” Hebrews 7:26 says, “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.” Christ is holy, and because He is, He cannot tolerate sin and demands holiness from His people. “Be holy as I am holy, says the Lord.”

Verse 7 continues, “He who is true.” There are two Greek words for “true.” Alethes, which refers to something true as opposed to false. For example, “The ocean is wet” is a true statement, whereas “The ocean is dry” is a false statement. But that is not the word Jesus uses. He uses Alethinos, which means the source of all truth. Jesus, in other words, isn’t just a person who tells the truth. He is truth incarnate, which means anyone who disagrees with anything He ever taught is by definition wrong. He is the standard by which every other thought or teaching is judged. You say, “That’s awfully narrow!” You’re right! It is. But this is who Jesus claimed to be—the only true revelation of God. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6). If that isn’t a cause for confidence, I don’t know what it.

Verse 7 adds, “He who has the key of David, who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens.” What does this mean? Jesus is likening Himself to Eliakim, the faithful treasurer of King Hezekiah, described in Isaiah 22. Eliakim held the key to the king’s treasury with the power to open or shut it at will. Now the Savior takes that Old Testament truth and applies it to Himself, saying, “I am the Greater Eliakim with the keys to Heaven’s treasures, so that whatever your need may be, I can supply it.” It is what Paul promised the Philippians when He said, “And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:19)

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Then, just to make sure we don’t misunderstand how important this is, Jesus continues in verse 8, “See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it.” Do you realize how powerful and encouraging that statement is to a struggling church? Think of the problems we face today—economically, politically, morally, spiritually—and realize, we as Christians have been called to do something about it. But how is that possible? Things are so evil, how can we ever hope to make a dent in them? The answer is that victory is not only possible, it is certain because of who holds the key. Every effort we make for Christ—every missionary effort, every witnessing effort, every Bible class taught, every prayer offered—has the potential of eternal life-changing success. Why? Because Jesus Christ has opened the door. Paul referred to this in his letter to the Corinthians. He wrote, “For a great and effective door has opened for me.”

Sometimes we talk about looking for opportunities to serve the Lord. But that’s a cop-out, isn’t it? We don’t have to look for opportunities. Why? Because Jesus has already opened the door. All we have to do is walk through it and take advantage of the opportunities that exist. Will you do that? Think about the unbelievers you know. Isn’t there at least one you could befriend for Christ? Or think about the pressing needs of our missionaries or other believers in your fellowship. Isn’t there are least one need you could meet? Remember, there’s no such thing as being over-qualified for the Lord’s work. If Jesus could wash feet, then what could possibly be beneath us?

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  1. The Threat to Their Greatness

You can see it in verse 11. Jesus warns, “Behold, I come quickly. Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.” This is a clear indication that the Philadelphian had already earned a wonderful reward from Christ. There was nothing new or different they had to do. All they had to do was hold on to what they had. But that isn’t easy. For it is possible to serve Christ well, earn a reward, but then, because of lack of unfaithfulness, to drop out of the race before it’s ended and lose everything you’ve achieved. 2 John 1:8 warns, “Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward.”

You say, “I didn’t think a Christ could lose his salvation?” You’re right. We can’t. Not if we have truly been born again. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 assures us that even if our works amount to hay, wood, and stubble, and are burned up at the Judgment Seat of Christ, we ourselves will be saved as from the fire—if our foundation is Christ. It isn’t a matter of heaven and hell. It’s a matter of rewards. We’re warned that unless we’re watchful, we can lose our crowns. Or to be more precise, we can have them stolen from us. Who would do that? The enemy of our souls. Satan knows very well that he cannot take away our eternal life. So he settles for second best. He seeks to tarnish our victory by stealing our rewards. How? Through pride and complacency.

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I’m thinking right now of a well-known pastor who was heard to say many times over the years that the one area in which Satan would never trip him up was his sex life. And yet, it wasn’t long before he was caught having an affair with a woman he was counseling. Isn’t that tragic! To work hard for Christ, but then, because of a lack of watchfulness, to disgrace yourself, your family, and to lose everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve? But it can happen. Paul said it could happen to him. That’s why he wrote 1 Corinthians 9:27. He said, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” So let’s take nothing for granted. Let’s hold fast to what we have, that no one may take our crowns. Or as Revelation 2:10 puts it, “Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.”

  1. The Rewards for Their Greatness

Given the faithfulness of the Philadelphians and the positive tone of this letter, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find this letter filled with promises. And it is!

A.  Vengeance

The first promise is found in verse 9 where Jesus says, “Indeed, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.” That is a promise of vengeance.

The Christians in Philadelphia were suffering severe persecution like the other cities in the region, but in their case it was instigated by the Jews. There was a large synagogue of Jews in Philadelphia who believed that Christianity was a blasphemous lie, and like Paul before his conversion, they wanted to destroy the church. But instead of giving in to bitterness, the believers simply looked to the Lord in faith. Why? Because of what we Christians have been taught for two thousand years now. Romans 12:17-19, “Do not return evil for evil, and do not take revenge, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine. I will repay, says the Lord.”

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It isn’t our job to get even with those who hurt us—parents, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends, co-workers, fellow church members. For God promises that His judgments are much more just and satisfying. Here He promises that anyone who hurts us, mocks us, or takes advantage of us, because we’re Christians, will one day be made to bow before us in repentance. “Indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.” That should do away with the need for wrath and revenge, shouldn’t it?

B.  Deliverance

Next, Jesus promises deliverance. Verse 10 continues, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”

This is one of the most important verses in the book of Revelation. First, Jesus warns that there is a period of judgment coming upon the entire earth, not just Philadelphia or the region of Asia Minor. What period of judgment is that? After all, no worldwide judgment against sin has taken place since the Genesis flood. But read the rest of this book and it becomes clear. He is referring to the Tribulation pictured in chapters 6 to 19.

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But He doesn’t stop there. He goes on to make a promise to the Philadelphians which applies to believers in ever age and every kind of church. We know that because the letter again ends with the call, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev. 3:13) This is a promise that those who truly love and believe in Christ will be removed from the earth before this hour of trial begins. After all, what bridegroom wouldn’t rescue His bride from disaster if He could. Certainly our Heavenly Bridegroom will. Two facts make this clear:

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First, the preposition “from.” Some versions translate it “out of the hour of trial.” That is the most accurate rendition. For the Greek word ek means “out of” and comes from a root word meaning separation. This indicates that Christ isn’t merely going to protect His Church in the Tribulation; He is going to keep us “out of” it. In fact, those who teach that the church must go through the Tribulation, but be protected by Christ in the midst of it, have problems explaining what follows in the rest of the book. Later chapters reveal that those who come to faith in Jesus Christ during the Tribulation will not be protected from persecution, but will be martyred for their faith.

Second, Jesus says that this hour is designed to “test those who dwell upon the earth.” This phrase is used 10 times in Revelation and always refers to unbelievers, not believers. So, if you think the church might go through the Tribulation, the question you must answer is: Why? What purpose would be served by it? The answer is: No good purpose. This is an hour intended to test “earth-dwellers,” not those whose citizenship is already in heaven.

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In fact, what is striking is how often we have read the word “church” and “churches” in the first three chapters. I counted 19 uses of the word, and in each case the church in on earth. However, once we come to chapter 4, there is never again any mention of the church on earth, because the church is now safe in heaven, represented by the twenty-four elders worshiping before God’s throne. Of course, this is not to suggest that the church will escape all tribulation. In John 16:33, Jesus clearly warned, “in the world you will have tribulation.” But what we won’t go through, if we’re genuinely saved, is the Tribulation. The definite article indicates a very specific time of trial from which we will be delivered—“the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world to test those who dwell on the earth.” (Rev. 3:10)

C.  Permanence

Third, Jesus promises the church permanence. Verse 12 adds, “He who overcomes, I will make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more.” This alludes to the tradition of the Philadelphians who honored their heroes by carving their names on the pillars of their temples. In our case, there will be no physical temple in the New Jerusalem, for Revelation 21:22 tells us that Christ will be the only temple we need. But He will memorialize our good deeds. How? By giving us a status that will cause others to look up to us.

And He promises that we “will go out no more.” That phrase had special meaning for the Philadelphians. Built in an earthquake zone, the citizens spent much of their lives getting in and out of town. An earthquake would strike and the people would run for safety. Then the trembling would stop and they’d return and rebuild their homes. In fact, we’re told that in 17 AD a major earthquake struck the area, destroying 12 cities including Sardis and Philadelphia. Another earthquake destroyed Laodicea in 60 AD.

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So this is a promise of peace and permanence. It is what David sang about in Psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

D.  Acceptance

Finally, Jesus promises us three new names: “And I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of Heaven from My God. And I will write on Him My new name.” What do these three things signify? Acceptance and belonging. Just as an earthly bridegroom gives his name to his precious new bride, so Jesus will give us His new name, signifying forever that we belong to Him.

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So let me ask you. How strong are you? Chances are, not very. Because what God so often chooses are the weak things of this world to shame the strong. Which means that, despite our outward appearances, most of us are weak, sensitive, and vulnerable. But that’s OK as long as you’re protected. And we are! How? The coney knows. By placing our lives in the care of Jesus Christ. That gives us safety and strengthen for whatever He asks us to do today, and courage and hope for what we face tomorrow. So stay close to Christ. He is our Rock!

(Thanks for studying with us! To download the written lesson, click Written. To download the Powerpoint slides for teaching, click Slides.)

 

Smyrna: Will I Suffer for Christ?

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Study #4: The Letter to the Church in Smyrna

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Debora Johnson Horse Picture of John Wesley

One of the best stories about John Wesley involves his expectation of persecution. One day he was riding along when it suddenly dawned on him that three days had passed without an egg or brick being tossed at him. But instead of than being happy about it, he worried. He slid down off his horse, knelt on the ground, and began to pray, “Lord, what’s wrong with me? Am I backslidden?” And for several minutes, he asked the Lord to show him the reason for his lack of suffering. Just then, an irreligious fellow looked over the hedge and spied the preacher praying. Recognizing him, the irreligious fellow said to himself, “I’ll fix that Methodist preacher!” and picked up a brick and threw it at him. The brick missed its mark and fell harmlessly to the ground. But Wesley saw it and leaped to his feet with joy. “Praise God!” he shouted. “It’s all right. I still have His presence.”

You may wonder, “Was Wesley crazy or just an old fool?” The answer is neither. He was simply taking literally what Jesus told us from the beginning. John 15:20, “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” 2 Timothy 3:12 repeats the warning, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Today one of the big debates among Christians is the Tribulation. Will the church remain on earth and go through the Great Tribulation? That’s a question that we will address in Revelation chapter 3. But regardless of the position you take regarding the Tribulation, there is one issue on which all Christians can agree. Every church and every Christian will go through some tribulation. The enemy of our souls will not be content to let us serve Christ without some sort of opposition. If he can stop us through official persecution, he will do it. And if the Lord does not return soon, we in the West may begin to face a degree of persecution we have never experienced before. But even when that avenue isn’t open to him, he finds other ways to hurt us—personal insults and injustices, rejection by family and friends, financial disasters, mental and physical disorders. Satan never ceases in his search for something to weaken our faith and destroy our effectiveness for Christ.

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But as great as his opposition is, let’s not forget. God has a purpose and a victory in our suffering. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” One of the best examples is found in Revelation 2:8-11 where we meet the church of Smyrna, who suffered intensely for Christ. But they did it to the glory of God, providing a timeless example that we can follow today.

By the way, I failed to mention something significant when we began our study of the churches. But I want to mention it now because, as you’ll see shortly, it becomes very important in the study of this letter. The seven letters to the seven churches follow a common pattern. First, the destination of the letter is given along with a description of Christ which is intended to encourage them or warn them. Next a commendation is given citing the good deeds of the church, followed by a word of correction from Jesus. Finally, each letter closes with an exhortation and a promise of blessing to those who hear and obey it. But as we study the church in Smyrna, one of these features is intentionally missing.  There is not one word of correction. Let’s learn why as we look at several key factors about this city. They will help us understand what is said in the rest of the letter.

  1. City

The letter begins, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write.” Historians report three facts about this city. First, its beauty. The Romans called it the “ornament of Asia.” For it boasted the safest, most beautiful harbor of its day and was an excellent example of city planning, laid out according to the specifications of its founder, Alexander the Great.

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Second, it was a Roman city. Even though it was located 500 miles from Italy, Smyrna was infatuated with Rome, so much so that even before Rome became a super-power, they erected a temple in its honor at the center of their city. Later, due to their loyalty in war, Caesar also made it a free city, granting Smyrna all the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship. This was then followed by an even greater honor. In 26 AD, Smyrna was chosen as the site for a new temple in honor of Tiberius Caesar. This not only deepened their devotion to Rome, it also made it a center of emperor worship. This delighted all but the Christians in Smyrna, for now the choice before them was: Worship Caesar or suffer.

But the most striking thing about the city was its name. The word “Smyrna” means myrrh—a spice used as an embalming agent and as an anesthetic for pain. As such, it became a symbol and synonym for suffering. For example, when Jesus suffered on the Cross, it was myrrh He was offered to drink, and it was myrrh that was used in preparing His body for burial. It is fitting, then, that the suffering church of Asia should be found in the city of myrrh. In fact, what is interesting about myrrh is that it has to be crushed to give off an odor. And the more it is crushed, the sweeter its odor becomes. That was the experience of the Smyrnans. God let the devil crush them, but the more he crushed them, the sweeter their testimony became. I pray the same will be said of us when we go through trial or persecution.

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  1. Comfort

Notice also how fitting the description of Christ is in verse 8: “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life.” “First and the Last” refers to His eternity, reminding us that nothing catches Him by surprise. Whatever hardships or heartaches lie ahead of us, He has already previewed them and made sure they all work together for our good. (Rom. 8:28) Remember that was you await that medical biopsy, make that pivotal career decision, or pray for that long-awaited need. Remember that “the eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms?” (Deut. 33:27)

“Was dead and came to life” is, on the other hand, a reference to His resurrection and the reason He can say to us in verse 10, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.” Why needn’t we fear? Because regardless of what we suffer in this life, Jesus promises that we will live forever, “Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:19)

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Several years go, an ocean liner called the Empress of Ireland sank. On board were 130 Salvation Army officers, only 21 of whom survived, very few compared to the number of people on board the ship. Many wondered, “Why would God let so many of His children die?” When they examined their bodies, they learned why. Not one of those who drowned was wearing a life preserver! When interviewing the survivors, they said that when these brave souls saw there weren’t enough lifejackets to go around, they took theirs off and strapped them onto others saying, “It’s OK. I can afford to die. I know Jesus.”

Do you? Are you a follower of Jesus? Then you don’t need to worry about the future, because no matter what you suffer here, you’re going to live forever. And not only live forever, Jesus promised that whatever we give up for Him in this life—friends, family, or possessions—will be more than made up for in the life to come. What a comfort to those suffering saints in Smyrna. Now listen to His commendation of the Smyrnans.

  1. Commendation

In each of the letters to the churches, Jesus begins His commendation with the statement, “I know your works.” But in comforting the Smyrnans, He adds, “I also know your suffering.” That’s true, isn’t it? As the old hymn puts it—

Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide till the day is done;  There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus—No, not one! No, not one!

First, He says, “I know your tribulation.” There are many words for tribulation in the Bible. This one means “pressure from without,” referring not to physical illness or emotional stress, but to physical persecution from the world. Think of the torture of the first Christians—flogging, prison, mauled by lions in the arena, lit as torches in Nero’s garden, beheading by the sword. Yet Jesus says, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”

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Next He says, “I know your poverty.” The word means “destitute.” As victims of the “ten percenters,” the Smyrnans gave up everything for Christ. Roman law stated that when someone was turned in for being a Christian, 90% of the victim’s property went to the government, but 10% was awarded to the informant as a reward, leaving the Christians absolutely destitute. And yet, Jesus could say to them in verse 9, “You are rich!”

How could that be? How can a person be both rich and poor? Because God’s definition of riches is radically different from that of the world. For example, there are many in today’s Christian culture who will tell you that if you have enough faith and you’re in God’s will, you will never be sick or impoverished. God always wants His children to be healthy and wealthy. But I can tell you without apology that those who say such things know nothing about the Kingdom of God. As James corrected his readers, “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5) The truth is that God frequently lets His children go through lean times. Not because He doesn’t love us, but because He wants us to experience first and foremost of all the richness of knowing Him.

This reminds me of the Thomas Acquinas’ visit to the holy city of Rome. While there, the pope took him on a tour of the papal treasures. Smiling proudly, the pope said, “So, you see, Thomas, no longer can we say like Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” To which the great man replied, “No, and neither can we say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise and walk.” You see, as American believers, we are rich when it comes to creature comforts, but I wonder, how wealthy are we when it comes to knowing God?

Third, He says, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” In Smyrna there was a large Jewish population who claimed to love God, but rejected Jesus His Messiah and did everything in their power to destroy His church. For example, when Polycarp the pastor of this church was sentenced to be burned at the stake, history records that it was the Jews who stacked the wood for the fire.

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Synagogue in Ancient Smyrna

Does this mean all Jews are Christ-killers and deserving of our contempt? By no means! Paul reminds us in Romans 11 that the Jews are still the apple of God’s eye and that one day all Israel will be saved. Therefore, whoever curses them will be cursed himself. Still, the Bible is clear that the greatest enemies of the saints are often religious themselves—Cain, Caiaphas, the Inquisitors. That has been the devil’s strategy from the beginning. He uses religion and religious people to discredit and persecute the people of God.

  1. Courage

So for what did Jesus correct the church at Smyrna? He didn’t. Unlike the other churches, the outstanding feature of this letter is they needed no correction. For one of the benefits of persecution is that those who have suffered for Christ normally demonstrate a deeper purity and loyalty to Christ than those who are comfortable in their faith. 1 Peter 4:1 talks about this, “Therefore, since Christ has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Is Peter saying that those who suffer physically reach a state of sinless perfection in which they are no longer susceptible to sin? No. He is reminding that suffering can, if we let it, purify our values, break our infatuation with the world, and deepen our love for Jesus.

Hal Lindsey described a conversation with a European Christian who made frequent trips behind the Iron Curtain prior to the fall of communism. This believer witnessed amazing examples of faith and devotion to Christ. He added, “One church that was undergoing considerable persecution said they were praying for God to send persecution upon their Western brothers, so that they too might be purified.” That’s a little unsettling, isn’t it? To realize that God may be answering their prayers even now, as we experience more and more opposition in our country. But let’s not forget that suffering can be a blessing if it purifies and intensifies our love for God.

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Corrie Ten Boom talked about this in one of her books. She told about a group of Russian believers meeting behind closed doors. Suddenly two soldiers burst into the room with machine guns, giving the believers five minutes to renounce their faith and leave, or they would be shot on the spot. A few fearfully got up and left. Then the soldiers walked to the door, locked it, and announced, “We’re believers too! But we can’t risk worshiping with anyone who isn’t totally committed to Christ. May we join your fellowship?”

Jesus did not correct the church at Smyrna. He encouraged them. First, He said to them, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.” Let’s see what we can learn about suffering from the Savior’s words.

The certainty of suffering. You say, “I’ve had enough suffering. Now it’s time for some peace and pleasure.” But who knows what’s coming? The testimony of those who are mature in the Lord is that trials are often constant. That’s what the word “suffer” in this passage means. It means to be “constantly suffering.” Listen to the words of Dr. Edward Judson at the dedication of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Referring to the life of his father, Adoniram Johnson, the great missionary, he said, “Suffering and success go together. If you are succeeding without suffering, it is because others before you have suffered. If you are suffering without succeeding, it is that others after you may succeed.”

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The source of suffering. Jesus adds, “The devil is about to thrown some of you into prison,” making it clear that our suffering is not always the result of our sin. Sometimes it’s the result of doing what is right. You see, now that Jesus has ascended to His throne in heaven, the only way for the devil to show His hatred for Christ is by attacking those of us who love Him. But the Savior encourages us not to be afraid. Why not? Because of two more facts about suffering.

The purpose of suffering. “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested.” The word “tested” means to prove the value of something. In other words, Satan may mean it for evil against us, but one day, if you belong to Jesus, you’ll be able to look back on what you’ve suffered and say with the Patriarch Joseph, “God meant it for good. He used it to bring out the best in me and bless others in the process.” Or as Job the Great Sufferer put it, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”

The brevity of suffering. Jesus says, “You will have tribulation ten days.” Those who believe the seven churches represent seven ages of church history say this refers to the ten Roman emperors who persecuted the church. That may be true. Others think it is an homage to Daniel and his friends. For when they were tested by King Nebuchadnezzar, how long did the test last? Ten days after which they were exalted to high positions in the king’s court. But whatever the reference, its meaning is clear. Our suffering will not last long. Life is like a mist that is quickly vanishing, and as we suffer the things of this life, 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

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  1. Crowns

You wonder, “Is it worth it to suffer for Christ?” Jesus answers that question in verse 10, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” That’s interesting, isn’t it? Jesus could have said, “Be strong or smart or successful,” something that would fit right in with our success-driven culture. But He didn’t. He said, “Be faithful.” Why? Because that’s what we lack—in our marriages, our families, our work, our churches. All it takes is a little opposition and we are ready to quit. Yet faithfulness is what God treasures most. Remember the master’s words in the parable of the talents, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you’ve been faithful over a few things. I will make you ruler over many things.”

But you say, “I’ve tried to be faithful, but I always end up failing.” Then try David Livingstone’s formula. The great missionary to Africa was standing before a group of students at the University of Glasgow, the signs of suffering evident in his body. Thirty different illnesses had left him emaciated. His left arm, crushed by a lion, hung limp at his side. But he offered the students hope for the trials they too would face. He said to them, “May I tell you what supported me through all the years of exile among people whose language I could not understand and whose attitude toward me was always uncertain and often hostile? It was this: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world.’ On these words I staked everything and they have never failed me.”

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If that is not enough motivation, cling to the double promise in verses 10 and 11. The first half is found in verse 10. Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Bible talks a lot about crowns, promising that just as the ancient Olympic athletes won laurel wreaths to celebrate their victories, you and I can win imperishable crowns to signify our loyalty to Christ forever. One crown is the crown of glory, given to faithful elders. Another crown is the crown of joy, given to faithful soul-winners. A third crown is the crown of righteousness, given to those who look forward to the Lord’s return. But this is the crown of life, given to those who are faithful until death.

“Then it’s a martyr’s crown!” you say. “Something only martyrs can wear.” No. Jesus doesn’t say to be faithful in death. He says to be faithful until death. James makes the same point in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” So it isn’t only martyrs. It’s for anyone who loves the Lord and proves it by being faithful under trial. That’s the real test of our faith – not how often we go to church, read the Bible, or pray. The real proof is how we respond to temptation and how faithful we are under trial. So ask yourself: How much do I love Jesus? Am I as holy in private as I seem to be in public? Am I as cheerful when things go wrong as when they’re going well?

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Verse 11 gives the second half of the promise—escape from the second death. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” What is the second death? According to the Bible, those who reject Christ die two times. The first death is separation of the soul from the body. James 2:26 explains, “The body without the spirit is dead.” But that’s not the end of it. The Bible says those who reject Christ will be resurrected one day to stand before Him in judgment, and because they’ve not given Him the worship in this life that He deserves, they will be separated from Him forever in eternity to come. Revelation 20:14 says, “This is the second death…anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”

Those are two powerful reasons, then, why it is worth it to be faithful to Christ until death: 1) Because we’ve been forgiven and will live with Him forever in heaven; and 2) Because every act of loyalty in this life will be rewarded in the life to come.

Let the testimony of Polycarp inspire you. It was towards the end of February. His congregation urged him to get out of Smyrna and escape the persecution that was beginning again. But he didn’t want to leave. So they forced him. They hid him in a cave, certain no one would find him. But they did. And to the surprise of his captors, he offered them something to eat and drink when they arrived. When they finished, he asked if he could get them anything else. “No,” they said. So he asked for permission to pray. “What can it hurt?” they thought looking at the old man. Little did they realize that he would go on in prayer for more than two hours. Imagine his words. “Dear Lord, we know that all men are sinners, and that no one can come to God except through your Son, Jesus Christ.” And on and on he went, giving them a full-length presentation of the gospel.

Finally, they took him away, back to the city. The officer in charge kept urging him to recant. “What harm can it do to sacrifice to the emperor?” Polycarp replied, “Jesus is Lord, and I cannot compromise that fact.” On arrival, to impress the crowd, they pushed him out of the carriage and onto the ground. Then they led him into the amphitheater and made him stand before the pro-consul. The pro-consul said, “Have respect to your age, old man. Swear that Caesar is Lord. Swear once and I will let you go and die in peace. Revile the Christ. He cannot be Lord.” Polycarp said with fearless devotion, “Eighty and six years I have served Him and He has never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The pro-consul persisted, “Swear by the genius of Caesar. I have wild beasts you know, and if you will not change your mind, I will throw you to them.” Polycarp was unmoved. He replied, “BID THEM BE BROUGHT!” (I love that!) But that angered the pro-consul all the more, so that he went on, “Since you despise the beasts, unless you change your mind, I will make you to be destroyed by fire.”

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Infuriated by the old man’s composure and eager to see him suffer, the mob began to gather wood for the pyre. Polycarp stood by the stake and said, “It will not be necessary to fasten me. I have strength from my Lord and Christ.” Then he prayed, “Lord, Almighty God, Father of Thy Beloved Son, Jesus, through Whom we have received knowledge of Thee, I thank Thee that Thou has thought me worthy this day and hour to share the cup of Thy Christ among the number of Thy witnesses.” Then the fire was kindled. But the wind kept driving the flames away, prolonging his agony. So finally, no longer able to stand it, a soldier drew his sword and put an end to his misery. Misery? He continued to praise Christ till the moment of his death.

That was the pastor of the church in Smyrna. He was faithful until death and is now enjoying the crown of life. Do you love Jesus enough to follow his example? The truth is: Nobody likes to suffer. But suffering is a fact of life. The only unresolved issue is: How will you respond to it? By God’s grace, let’s respond with faithfulness and love. For Jesus has promised, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”