Faith Under Fire
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Smyrna: Faith Under Fire
The crown of life was pledged to Christians who stayed faithful in troubling times. Learn how that reward can be yours.
[Darris McNeely] Do you have the quality of faith that Jesus wants to see in his disciples when he returns as King of kings? It's an important question. We need an answer to that.
The chant of the crowd in the Roman theater grew louder, demanding that they kill the Christians who denied their Roman God who worshiped Christ. The chant went up, "Away with the atheists," they cried. On that particular day, it was quite bloody. 11 Christians had died, killed in the arena. "Let a search be made for Polycarp," they said. This is the man who has taught so many to no longer sacrifice and pray to the gods. And so, the search went out for Polycarp. He was found, he was brought before the Roman magistrate sitting in his place of honor there in the arena, and the crowd was calling for his blood. "Deny Christ," the proconsul said. "Deny your faith, and I will set you free."
There was a moment, a supreme test, for a man named Polycarp who was actually a minister of the church of God in Asia during the second century A.D. Polycarp was a man who had been a disciple of the apostle John. He was a minister who had held his church together through the teachings of Jesus Christ. He had stood firm for the faith at a time when others were compromising to the power of Rome. Here was Polycarp, the dedicated, faithful pastor, who knew this moment of trial and testing of his faith was coming. What do you think was Polycarp's answer?
We're going through a series of the seven churches of the Book of Revelation right now, and the message that Jesus Christ gave to each one of those seven congregations. The letters are found in the Book of Revelation chapters two and three. Each of the messages given to these congregations are different. Each of the seven had a distinct application for the church even today for Christians in God's church. Well, we've come to the second letter, to the church in the ancient city of Smyrna. In this letter, Christ tells a group that they are about to enter a time of severe trial and testing of their faith. It's going to be short. He's warning them. He's essentially saying, "Buckle up, it's going to be a rough ride. There's turbulence ahead."
How about you? Are you dealing with a difficult experience? Perhaps you're enduring a challenge right now, unexpected events have dealt a blow to many people. Many of us, even, it's a time of stress. Faith is being tested. Are we being prepared for bigger times ahead? If we are, what can we learn? Christ's message to the church, the ancient city of Smyrna actually has an application for people of faith and Christians today. It anchors us in one of the constant truths that we really must understand, and that is the need to endure suffering and to exercise faith in our lives.
Christ asked a question that fits every one of us. In one of His statements, Jesus said, "When the Son of Man comes, will he really find faith on the earth?" And so the question, do you have the quality of faith that Jesus wants to see in His disciples when He returns as King of kings? It's an important question. We need an answer to that. We really do desire faith and we all know that we must have faith. Before we go to the message of the church at Smyrna, what I want to make known to our audience today and especially those that are watching, is the study guide that we are offering, "You Can Have Living Faith." This is a very simple, easy-to-read booklet. There's a chapter that opens the booklet here dealing with the question of what is faith, and helping people to understand. It starts from a very basic level and works through the subject of faith.
Much of our society today is secular, people don't read the Bible. The times we're living in are not meant to build faith in God. It's a scientific, materialistic age. In fact, our times are designed really to destroy any faith in a Creator God. It's a dangerous moment for people who do have faith, much like that of the first century. You can go online to beyondtoday.tv and order a free copy of this or download it right away to begin reading, or call the number on your screen, we'll mail you a copy of this free of charge, "You Can Have Living Faith."
So I started with a story of Polycarp. Let's go back and let's understand exactly who this man was and why it's important to this matter of faith. Polycarp was a minister of the church of God, as I said, in the ancient city of Smyrna in what is today Turkey. He lived in a period after the age of the apostles, the ones who were the foundation of the church that Jesus began to build after his death and his resurrection. Polycarp lived at a time when the truth and the faith that Christ delivered to the original church was being distorted. The simplicity of the teaching that Jesus gave was leaving the church. It was a time of great internal stress on those who were remaining faithful to the teachings of Christ. There was also pressure from the outside, the culture upon the church. The Roman imperial authorities was closing in on Christians and persecuting those who would not worship the cult of the emperors. The apostle John had been exiled to Patmos for his faith. Christians who would not bow to the power of Rome, they were being put to death. Christ's message to this small church in the ancient city of Smyrna was intended to help them face time of severe suffering and trial. That message is found in the Book of Revelation, it's found there in chapter two. So let's look at it, it's very short. In fact, of the seven messages to those churches, the one to Smyrna is actually the shortest.
Remember, the Book of Revelation begins with the apostle John, seeing Christ standing in the midst of seven lampstands that are identified as the seven churches, again congregations in Asia during the first century. Each received their own message that fits their locale, actually mentioning things and people that pertained to them at that time. Also comments upon their spiritual condition. And so when we come to chapter two and beginning in verse eight, when we read here where it says, "To the angel of the church in Smyrna write, 'These things says the First and the Last, who was dead and who came to life,'" in this message Jesus repeats what He had said in the opening chapter of Revelation. And also it's repeated at the very end of the Book of Revelation. He says, "I am the First and the Last." What Christ is saying is He's in control of history, especially the affairs of history regarding salvation and judgment and all of prophecy. And that last phrase, "He who was dead and came to life," it speaks to Christ's control over all history, including death and life.
Christ died a horrible death of crucifixion. He was raised to life after three days and three nights. And so here really is a message that has encouragement to those who are facing severe triumphs. He said in the opening verses of the book, "Don't be afraid, "I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One. I was dead and now I live, and I am alive forever and ever." And really what Jesus says there in saying that He's alive forever and ever is with the central point of the very gospel, Christ died and rose from the dead, and He is the high priest over the house of God and He stands poised to return to this earth as King of kings. And what Christ is saying to His church is, don't be afraid. He holds the keys of life and death. He tells John and the members of the church to keep their eyes focused on Him. It's the only way through this life.
The path of a disciple is really the great adventure of life. God calls us to receive a crown of victory over all the challenges, the trials, and suffering, the blessings and rewards that He has called us to in this life. When we pick up the message here in verse nine then, He says to the church, "I know your works, tribulation and poverty." But he says, "You are rich. I know your works." Jesus is aware of what goes on with each member of his spiritual body, every one of us. He's vigilant, nothing escapes His attention, He hears our prayers, He knows our needs. And because He knows, Christ is patient and merciful. He doesn't judge harshly, kind of like we might do at times. He doesn't do that. You know, we don't get what we deserve. Will you think about that? We do get what we need. When you're in God's hands we get what we need to stay on the path to eternal life, and there is the promise of a crown of victory to us. God also gives us plenty of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
None of us really get what we deserve. With that, every one of us should be very thankful. He says He knows our trials, He knows the afflictions, and in the midst of those problems we often think, "Is God really there for us?" We might ask that. We're worried if He hears our prayers. Is He really willing to help? Faith tells us that God is working something in our life that we might not immediately see when we're in the midst of a very difficult period of sickness or other form of suffering. In fact, the New Testament writers, Peter and Paul explain that all who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer in various ways. Peter writes in one of his epistles, "Don't be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come to test you." Don't think that it is something strange happening to us. Now that's a hard Scripture to swallow at times.
You know the game of baseball? There's a lesson in baseball that I think can help us understand this, and that is life throws us curve balls. We know this, we have trials, that's a curve ball sometimes, difficult to hit. In baseball what separates a mediocre player from a very good baseball player is a good baseball player learns to hit the curve ball. Life isn't always soft pitches that we can easily hit. It comes at us fast, takes a dip, takes a curve, something we didn't expect. We have to stay in the game. We have to stay in the game of life and we have to learn how to hit the curve ball. There's times when we're going to struggle with sin, pressure from the culture that we live in. We live righteously, but we still may suffer. It'll be a difficult period. We don't always know why but we trust in faith that God is with us. Christ's message to us is to keep our eyes on Him. He knows what we suffer and He gives us the help to work through that pain and that we have to rely on.
To the church here at Smyrna He goes on to say next, He said, "I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." That's a pretty strong passage there, it's a problem that the early church faced. You see, the first disciples were Jews and as their belief in the resurrected Christ caused a clash with the Jewish faith, there was a problem. These only grew as they added more later, non-Jewish Gentiles to the church. It came to a point where Christians had then had to separate from Judaism. And they encountered opposition from those with whom that they had much in common because the early church kept God's Sabbath, the seventh day. The early church observed the Passover and the festivals of God. Many Jews even did accept the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, the prophesied seed of David come as the Messiah. And because of that there was a source of tension throughout the early church.
And so when we come to the story of Polycarp, he was keeping the Passover and the biblical festivals and the Sabbath. He taught the churches in Asia to do the same, but there were other voices within that wanted to abandon anything Jewish, in order to lesson the persecution. And so Jesus, in saying that you have those there that are of the synagogue of Satan, He's saying, He's really attacking those who claim to be the true covenant people of God but were of a different fellowship, the synagogue of Satan. It's a strong phrase, but it applies to a real situation.
Persecution for the church, then and now, can come from within and without. The true source is identified here. It's always Satan. The church always contends against spiritual wickedness in high places. Jesus wants us to remember that very important point. He overcame Satan and through Christ, we also can defeat the attacks that Satan engineers against those who are going to follow biblical truth. He goes on in verse 10, then says, "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 10 days. But be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life." That's a strong message, something no disciple of Christ wants to hear. A period of intense trial and suffering was upon them.
To follow Christ in this ancient city of Smyrna was an interesting situation. Smyrna had the reputation for a deep support and allegiance to the power of Rome. Any group not having that same allegiance was suspect, considered disloyal and so a time of short and intense persecution lay ahead. You know, I look back on the years that I've worked in the ministry, and I've known periods of intense suffering upon believers. During the years that I was a pastor, I would often see illness, disease, and death come in waves over the congregation that I would work with. When you see friends and family who you share faith with, when you see them suffer, everyone in that congregation suffers along with them. And I've learned firsthand that death is indeed man's enemy. Death is an enemy. Death robs a young person of their future. Death keeps the aged from watching grandchildren grow up. Death can come suddenly and take a mother from her young children, leaving those children to enter adulthood without her finishing hand and touch upon them.
I once knew a man who shortly after coming to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, he was diagnosed with cancer and the cancer took his life in a few short months. He had little time to grow in grace and knowledge. I used to ask the question about that gentleman for many years, "Why, God, was he taken so quickly?" And I realize now that Christ knew the man's time. His life made him ready for the role that is waiting for him in the kingdom of God. I came to realize Christ's timing is perfect with each one of us. This may be the key lesson from this message to the church in Smyrna. God knows you. His calling to salvation is exact, it's precise.
He will finish the good work that is begun in all of us. If we have the Spirit of Christ, we are His. And Christ, who was dead and is now alive, will carry us through any trial and test of our faith. All suffering we endure has the intent of purifying and refining our character into the very image of God. That's why we suffer. And Christ tells the church here in Smyrna and to the church today, you will go through fire and testing but it is to prepare you for the role that I am going to give you in His coming kingdom. Christ is preparing all of us for that coming age.
Now we left Polycarp standing before the Roman magistrate. The crowd was calling for his blood. Again, remember, "Deny Christ" is what the proconsul said. "Deny your faith and I will set you free." What did Polycarp answer? We'll find out in just a minute. Before we come to that conclusion or that day in that arena, I'd like to once again make known the offer of our free study guide, "You Can Have Living Faith." This booklet shows that faith isn't some magical ingredient. It does motivate our mind to the assurance of God's power, His will, to act in our lives. Faith becomes more than a mental conviction, as it grows into a deeper and abiding commitment to God and his work in our lives. We can rest assured that God's will does not include frivolous or unproductive behavior, but godliness that is profitable for all things. The booklet, "You Can Have Living Faith" is something you can begin reading now by downloading or ordering a free copy at beyondtoday.tv or call the phone number on your screen, we'll mail you a free copy. Either way, there's no cost to you. You'll find, I think, a fascinating study to help understand exactly what faith is.
So what happened to Polycarp? The story of faith comes down to us from an age of Christian suffering, and greatly for their faith in Christ. It was a dangerous moment and the church was under attack, as I've said, from without and from within. There were false teachers that were eroding and ripping truth from the church, creating internal problems. In fact,Polycarp had just returned, before he was arrested. He had returned from Rome where he had argued with a bishop in Rome, a man by the name of Victor. Victor was over the Roman church and the Roman church wanted to abandon the festivals of God. They wanted to begin keeping Easter. And Polycarp, who was holding firm to the truth of the Passover, to God's festivals and other truths, he couldn't convince Victor to hold to that. So while they agreed to disagree, here was an obvious break. And so Polycarp returned to Smyrna and there he was arrested and brought to the arena, offered clemency if he would only make the obligatory sacrifice and offering to the Roman emperor. Polycarp refused.
Here's what he said. He said, "86 years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I speak evil of my King who saved me?" This is a statement comes down to us through the ages and it is one of bold confidence and belief. But the story goes that wood was quickly gathered and Polycarp was placed upon a pyre. And there he died, the heroic death of a martyr. And so there's a lesson for us today, a lesson to hold to the true faith of God. In a modern culture, the one we live in today, a culture that is designed to destroy seeds of the true gospel from ever taking root in our lives. Here's a story telling us there was a time when people died for their clear view and defined view of Jesus Christ who was the owner of their life. Who by a sacrifice for sin is Lord and Master and coming King. Who by his resurrection has conquered death, and holds the very keys to life. Here's a story, that of Polycarp, and a message to the church at Smyrna and to the church of God today, no matter how difficult life can be, we can find a way forward.
The conclusion of Christ's message to the church at Smyrna, then, contains a promise and truth. In verse 11, He says, "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." Second death, that's an interesting statement. The Bible speaks of a final judgment, it's called the second death. And he says, on those who will not accept God's offer of eternal life it will come at a future time when God reveals to all who have ever lived and never understood the knowledge of the truth of God. To those in Smyrna and to any who die in Christ, the second death holds no threat or power.
Here, for any facing a trial that can end in death is God's promise for life eternal. The second death holds no power. God can give no greater assurance. It's the logical end of the statement of Christ, who said, "I am the First and the Last, I am He who lives, who was dead, I am alive forevermore. I have the keys of the unseen realm."
You can have that type of faith as well, we all can. We all need that faith that we see can be derived by our study and reading of the very Word of God. The booklet that we are offering, the study guide, "You Can Have Living Faith," is a simple, direct piece of our literature to help you understand exactly what faith is, how to develop it. It's not difficult. So you can begin reading it now by downloading it or ordering your free copy at beyondtoday.tv, or call the number that is on your screen, we'll mail you a free copy. Either way, there's no cost to you. I think that any of us, and those of you watching online will find this to be a fascinating study to help bring about the basic conditions of faith, that it will take for us to live righteously in this world today in anticipation of Christ's coming.
Christ asked the question, "Will you have faith when the Son of Man appears as King of kings?" The message to the church at Smyrna gives us that key. Let's hear what Christ says to His church.
[Narrator] Call now for the booklet offered on today's program, "You Can Have Living Faith." Many Christians struggle with faith even after years of trying to follow Christ. What is missing? How can you grow in faith? This free study aid, "You Can Have Living Faith" will help you discover just what faith is. God wants you to have a living, vital faith that guides every aspect of your life. Order now, call toll free 1-888-886-8632, or write to the address shown on your screen. "You Can Have Living Faith" will help you find hope in God's promises. When you order this free study aid, we'll also send you a complimentary one-year subscription to "Beyond Today" magazine. "Beyond Today" magazine brings you understanding of today's world and hope for the future. Six times a year, you will read about current world events in light of Bible prophecy, as well as practical knowledge to improve your marriage and family, and godly principles to guide you toward life that leads to peace. Call now to receive your free booklet. "You Can Have Living Faith," and your free one-year subscription to "Beyond Today" magazine, 1-888-886-8632, or go online to beyondtoday.tv.