The Church Without Fear

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Revelation 2:8-11

May 31st, 2009

Imagine a beautiful, white marble city rising from the shore of a turquoise sea: its gleaming buildings climbing the nearby slopes of a low mountain, in terrace after terrace, its streets arrayed up the hillside like a series of necklaces around the neck. The city is ancient Smyrna, a wealthy commercial trade center in Asia Minor, strategically located on a deep harbor of the Aegean Sea. It is the second stop on our tour of seven cities in Asia Minor, each of them given a message from Jesus through the apostle John in the late first century. And it provides another context for navigating the challenge of living as a follower of Jesus in a hostile world, hostile in ways both subtle and not so subtle. Here too we will find answers to the challenges we face, as followers of Jesus in our own time: What does it mean to be faithful, when the call of the culture around us is to bend, to accommodate, to be like our neighbors? Just how much compromise is too much? How far does Christ expect us to go to remain faithful? What should we do if maintaining our faith puts us in danger, of losing face, losing a job, or losing our lives? Where can we find the courage we need to take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God? We may be surprised to find that the lives of ancient Christians were, in some ways, not so much different from our own. Like the urban centers that many of us inhabit today, Smyrna was a significant city of over 100,000 people. It’s construction had been carefully planned out, the streets broad and welcoming, meeting at right angles in the lower part of the city in front of the slope. Because of this careful and intentional layout, Smyrna city was celebrated across the ancient world as being the most beautiful city in the region: Smyrna’s politicians commissioned coins that read, ‘first in Asia in beauty and size.’ It was also a cultural center, known for hosting athletic games and boasting of being the birthplace of the great Greek poet, Homer. The real success of the city was due to its location. It was the terminus of a major road inland, to the fertile valleys of Asia Minor, and beyond to the great empires of the east. Right before it was an excellent natural port, still in use today. Unlike Ephesus, whose message we considered last week, the harbor at Smyrna did not fill in with silt. In fact, the inner harbor could be opened and closed using a large chain that stretched across its mouth. This secure port made Smyrna an enduring commercial trade center, seeing to the transport of goods going to and from Greece and Rome. In fact, Smyrna is one of the few cities among the seven that has survived — most of the ancient buildings of the city are now buried under the modern port of Izmir, the third largest city in all of Turkey. Not that all was always prosperous in ancient Smyrna. It was also known as the city that had died and come to life again. It had been destroyed by Lydians, invaders from inland, around the year 600 BC. It lay in ruins for some 300 years before it was refounded and rebuilt by two of Alexander the Great’s generals, Antigonus and Lysimachus, in 290 BC. This reconstruction was so much a part of Smyrna’s identity that Aristedes, the official town story teller, compared the destruction of the city and its later restoration to the legend of the phoenix, a bird that dies but magically comes to life again from its own ashes. The ancient city also had an interesting religious climate. It was known for its close connection to the Roman imperial cult. Smyrna was the first city in the region to ally with Rome in 193 BC — a risky move, since Rome had yet to demonstrate political and military supremacy over its rivals, such as Carthage. Nevertheless, Smyrna was the first city anywhere to erect a temple to the Roman civic goddess, Roma. Thus it was later honored by the emperor Tiberius with permission to build a second temple to Caesar Augustus, thus serving the empire as ‘neokoros,’ or temple keeper. Because this was a very high honor, the citizens of Smyrna were fiercely loyal to Rome and very loyal to the cult that honored its emperors. Another aspect of the unique religious setting was the very large number of Jews living there. In fact, Smyrna had the largest Jewish population of any city in Asia Minor, partly due to the forced exodus of thousands of Jewish families from Mesopotamia to Asia Minor at the hands of Antiochus III in 210 BC. The Jews of Smyrna were very wealthy and exercised considerable influence in the life of the city and region. They too were protective of the power they had, and showed little sympathy to those who might be seen as rivals or otherwise compromise their position. So we see, in some detail, an ancient context for disciples seeking to live a life of faithfulness to Jesus, their Lord. It was a challenging place, as was Ephesus, the city we visited last week. Many of the same pressures came to bear on the Christians in Smyrna: the civic duty of worship and sacrifice at pagan imperial temples, or to be identified with the Jewish community, by returning to the synagogue and following the Old Testament laws. We too, in our own day and age, often face subtle and not so subtle pressures to be conformed to the spirit and practice of our time. It may be a matter of keeping our beliefs to ourselves, and not to evangelize our neighbors. Such behavior today in many places is not seen as a loving act, a way of sharing salvation, but an arrogant act, one that presumes that we have the right religion, and other religions are inferior. Or perhaps you work in a place where there are shady business dealings that you are asked — or directed — to be a part of. Or there may be sexual sins in the life of a friend that he or she wants you to ignore. All these are ways in which we today are asked to compromise our faith, or compromise our very selves. Suddenly, the challenges of living faithfully in an ancient city like Smyrna feels very contemporary. Fortunately, we are blessed to listen in on Jesus message to the Christians of Smyrna, because it is a message for us too, and for all Christians who seek to follow Jesus, despite the pressures of the world around us. As we saw last week, Jesus begins each of the messages to the seven churches with a different, custom introduction: Verse 8 reads: "These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again." Those words, as a title, have an Old Testament background: in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, "I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God." God lists the extremes as a way of claiming the whole, just as we might say that a good mechanic understands cars bumper to bumper. God is declaring his sovereignty over all of history. Jesus also reminds us that he is the one who died and came to life again. For the people of Smyrna, the reminder of their own civic history would be striking. Remember that Smyrna was destroyed, lay empty, and was rebuilt after 300 years. Here, Christ declares he is the one with real power over life and death. So again, as we saw in Ephesus, Christ lays hold of the titles that this world’s powers use to assert their reign over human life; Christ takes them away and applies them to himself. That’s good news for us as well. When political parties, demanding bosses and even families lay claim to more than their fair share of our lives, we need to remember and stand up for the fact that we are owned, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He will not share his throne with anyone else. And it was because the Christians of Smyrna recognized this, Jesus commends them. He praises the church for their longsuffering faithfulness. He knows their afflictions. The same original Greek word was used by the apostle John earlier in Revelation 1:9, when he speaks of his own suffering in exile on the island of Patmos; it is about the suffering that is connected to faith. The Christians in Smyrna are poor people, suffering economic isolation as owners of businesses and laborers: people refused to give them work or buy from them because they were committed to following Jesus. Yet, says John, because they remain faithful, they are spiritually wealthy. Verse 9 says, "I know your afflictions and your poverty——yet you are rich!" Jesus goes on to say, "I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." This reflects another struggle these Christians have —— they are slandered by the Jewish community. This is not merely false rumors and gossip. The word implies official denunciation before the Roman authorities. So why this attack by Jews? The Jewish community may have taken offense at Christian theology: they were worshiping a condemned and crucified criminal not only as God, but as the long promised Jewish Messiah! It would also have been hard because many Christians likely came from the Jewish community. It is also likely that the rest of the people of Smyrna were confused about the relationship between the Jews and these Christians, something the Jews would not appreciate. In fact, the persecution of Christians by the Jews of Smyrna was quite passionate Later, around 150 AD, when Polycarp, the bishop of the church in Smyrna was sentenced to death, the Jews gladly scoured the city gathering wood on the Sabbath day to burn him alive! No wonder then that Jesus says they were Jews in name only; in reality they were the synagogue of Satan, standing with the Accuser, the devil, in their opposition to God’s people, the church. So Christ denounces them, these not really Jews, for they were eagerly persecuting his disciples. So pleased is Jesus with the church at Smyrna, that he finds no fault with them. The complaint section of the message is missing! Of the seven churches, only two, Smyrna and Philadelphia, have no complaint lodged against them. This highlights what a healthy church Smyrna was. But there is opportunity for guidance. The first part of verse 10 reads, "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death…" Things will become even more difficult for these Christians. The Romans did not generally use prisons for punishment—that was too costly. Prisons housed people awaiting either trial or execution. Thus, they are commanded to be faithful to the point of death. But again, Christ also brings words of comfort, words that Polycarp himself likely remembered as he prepared himself for martyrdom: "These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again." They need not fear because Christ is Lord over history and death. This particular title would provide for the Christians in Smyrna strengthening comfort in light of Christ’s words about persecution They were not to fear also because persecution will last for a limited time only. Jesus mentions 10 days. This may have been meant as a reminder of Daniel and his friends, in the Old Testament, who were tested for 10 days and vindicated. What does vindication look like for faithful followers of Jesus Christ? "Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life." It is clear that martyrdom — dying for one’s faith —— is a probable outcome for some among them. And for those who set aside their fears, there is a crown. This is more than the victor’s crown, a twisted wreath of greenery, given to winners at the famous athletic games that Smyrna hosted. No, if the Christians of Smyrna persevere, even if death takes them, they will receive the real and lasting victory wreath — salvation unto eternal life. As victors over their accusers, they will have no need to fear the second death—a term used for the fate of the wicked in the life to come. But this call to move beyond fear and persevere is not only for the Christians of the first century —— in all times and places believers called to courage. Let me tell you something about courage. Courage is the name of my favorite cartoon character —Courage, the cowardly dog. This Courage is not like Superman, who really has no courage at all. Superman doesn’t need courage. He cannot be killed. He’s rarely ever in any danger. Courage the dog is often genuinely and deeply afraid. Sometime ago my kids and I watched an episode in which Courage faced a shady hamster, who posed as a salesman, selling vacuums door—to—door — only they weren’t really vacuums, but diabolical devices used to capture people and snatch them away. Facing this danger, Courage was terrified. So he needed to summon up courage, the virtue, within himself. And he discovers that courage didn’t take his fear away, that virtue instead gave him the strength to act in spite of his fear. Courage the dog swallowed his fear and acted to save the couple he lives with, both the kindly wife, whom he loves, and the grumpy husband, whom he doesn’t like. Acting in spite of fear, that’s what makes Courage a hero—that’s what defines bravery. C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Remember, Pilate was merciful only until it became risky." So what does it mean to muster and demonstrate courage as a Christian living in the world today? In other words, what does the message to the church in Smyrna have to do with us? You may readily identify with this word to the ancient Christians. You know what it means to face economic isolation, persecution, danger and perhaps even death for your faith. You know well that Jesus is not merely aware of your struggle and your fear; he is also with you, until the very end of the age. He offers the eternal victory for those who stand firm in the faith. He stands at the right hand of the Father, interceding for you, that you would be strong in courage. And he reminds us all, that he is the one who has conquered death, that even death would not eternally conquer us. Be faithful, and remain strong, that Christ might give you the lasting crown of life. Now it is also true that for many of us, there’s not a whole lot of persecution out there. In my own life, I struggle with what it means to apply this message in all its force. I am not facing death or poverty for my faith. What grave dangers am I facing for the cause of Christ? Not many. And for those of us living in free societies, that is not our fault. We are blessed to live under a government supportive of freedom of religion, generally. But we can ask ourselves, as disciples who follow our Lord, are we boldly going where Christ has gone before? Are we taking risks for the Kingdom of God? Where we are called? If we are not going anywhere, then we must be standing still, and so cannot say that we are being led. Courage is needed in the daily walk with Jesus — that was the teaching of William Gurnall, a 17th century Puritan Pastor. We need the courage to uproot sin in our life. Gurnall compared favorite sins to Isaac, the beloved only son of Abraham, whom he was called to sacrifice before the Lord. Do we have the same courage to let go of our beloved sins, to place them on the altar in faith and never see them back? We need the courage to be different. We are commanded not to conform to this world, not to accommodate ourselves to the corrupt customs of the world. The Christian must expect to meet opposition for being distinctive. As individual believers we ask ourselves such difficult questions. I encourage you to take a kind of spiritual inventory of your life. Are there areas where you are playing it safe? Are you avoiding difficult conversations at work or within your family or circle of friends, conversations that challenge behaviors that hurt other people or are in other ways unholy? Are you giving generously to God, are you tithing your income, even in this time of worldwide recession, not because the church budget needs it, but because God in his sovereignty asks it of you? Have you committed yourself to being an active part of a local church body, since that is the way the Holy Spirit addresses Christians in giving us the Scriptures? Evangelism in particular is an area that calls for courage in the life of those who follow Jesus. We need the courage to persevere. This will mean more than speaking out in faith once, then pulling back. As public ministers of the gospel, we are sometimes like ancient citizen soldiers. Many years ago, kingdoms and city—states did not have professional soldiers. So when a threat came, ordinary people — carpenters, potters, merchants and farmers , would join enthusiastically in a war campaign out of patriotism. But many would soon pull back or go AWOL [Absent Without Leave] after the second or third battle, once the glory of war was tarnished with real blood. Only a few courageous ones can bear to fight as a way of life. Only the faithful can persevere. Since this message was originally addressed to a particular church in a certain time, it is also good for us to find our courage and address the concerns that arise from life as a body together. As a member of the body of Christ do you continue to address in deep and tiring and loving conversations the divisions and disagreements that arise in your congregation? I’m not talking about seeking to argue endlessly over minor matters, I’m calling you to consider pointing out how your church can argue endlessly over minor matters. Do we have that kind of courage? Allow me to paraphrase what Chuck Swindoll says of fear in churches: "Fear causes churches to pay too much attention to people’s opinions; fear makes us hesitant to explore great thoughts and dream great dreams; fear steals our Joy. There’s no reason to be afraid for standing for what is right. The church that [conquers its fears] is a church that remains effective." May God grant us enough courage to act, to even evoke some trials and persecutions—and persevere.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

More >>