Summary: How can we learn to be strong enough to be faithful to the end, even if the end is death.
A. It has been said that there have been more Christian martyrs in recent years than there were during the time of the Caesars. (As I share these statistics, I am using the terms “Christian” and “church” in the broadest possible way).
1. According to a study done by Regent University, in 1999, nearly 164,000 Christians worldwide were martyred for their faith, and in 2000 that number was closer to 165,000.
2. With each passing year, the number of Christians who will face death for their beliefs increases.
3. It has been estimated that since AD 70, there have been over 70 million Christians put to death for refusing to renounce their beliefs.
4. This means that on average, just over 36 thousand have been killed each year for their faith.
5. In recent decades Christianity has grown so rapidly in the non-Western world that today more than 70 percent of Christians now lives outside the West.
6. Many of these Christians are in nations with poor human rights, weak rule of law, and limited freedoms.
7. Some 200 million Christians live under the dark shadow of persecution, daily risking – and regularly suffering – imprisonment, enslavement, violence or death on account of their allegiance to Jesus.
8. A further 400 million Christians live with discrimination and non-trivial restrictions on religious liberty that create considerable hardships such as poverty and homelessness. (Some statistics taken from the website for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church).
B. In light of these statistics, I must ask myself, “What gives those men and women the courage to stand firm in their belief, even in the face of death?”
1. And that question, of course, begs another: “Do I have what it takes to face death and stay true to my convictions?”
2. I would like us to consider those questions as we spend some time today in Revelation 2 thinking about what it means to be faithful to the end, even unto death.
3. In Revelation 2:8-11, we are introduced to the church in Smyrna.
4. They certainly were a faithful church and this in spite of the fact that they were a suffering church.
5. Let’s do two things: Let’s understand their suffering, and then let’s understand their strength.
I. Smyrna’s Suffering (How did they suffer?)
A. First, they suffered PHYSICALLY
1. Notice the very first thing Jesus says to this church: “I know your affliction.”
2. Other versions use the word “sufferings”, “tribulations”, or “troubles”.
3. Now, when we in the Western world think of persecution, we think of being fired from our jobs for refusing to work on the Sunday, or being ridiculed for our belief in Jesus.
4. In this sense, I’m sure every one of us has gone through some kind of trouble for being a Christian.
5. But what the church in Smyrna faced was much more severe.
6. The Greek word used here that is translated “affliction”, literally means “to crush” or “to apply heavy pressure.”
7. In everyday terms, this was the word used when speaking of the wine and olive presses – the fruits would be put in the presses to be crushed until all of their juices flowed out.
8. Another way this term was used was to describe a form of torture whereby a person was slowly crushed under a giant boulder.
9. And so the church of Smyrna was facing more than mere setbacks in spreading the gospel, more than an interruption in their daily routine – what they faced was determined and brutal opposition, physical torture, and painful death.
B. Let me tell you a little about Smyrna and what it was like to live there.
1. Smyrna was a city loyal to the Roman Empire. It was a proud and beautiful Asian city.
2. It was at Smyrna that the first Roman temple was built in honor of Tiberius, and it was Smyrna that first accepted the principle of Caesar worship.
3. Each year throughout the Empire every Roman citizen had to burn incense on the altar to the godhead of Caesar and say, "Caesar is Lord."
4. Because the Christians at Smyrna, and elsewhere, refused to participate in this act, they suffered tremendous persecution.
5. We see also that the persecution was not limited to the physical afflictions imposed upon the believers.
C. Second, they suffered ECONOMICALLY.
1. The letter to Smyrna also indicates that they were a poor church.
2. Again, this word needs to be clarified, for we are not speaking of people who had to work two jobs to make ends meet.
3. There are two Greek words that can be used for being poor.
4. One word means needy. Today we might describe it as living hand-to-mouth – getting by, but just barely.