Summary: Whatever trials you’re going through, Jesus calls you to simply remain faithful to Him.
I have to tell you about my experience this week. This week I did something I’ve never done before. This might surprise you, but up until Tuesday, I had never voted in a voting booth. You see, I turned 18 when I was in Basic Training. From that point forward, I always voted absentee. If you’ve never voted absentee, it’s a very anti-climactic experience. They send you four things in your voter packet. They send you a booklet that has all of the candidates and ballot initiatives listed in it. They send you a punch card ballot. And they send you a return envelope. You know what the fourth thing they send you is? A paperclip. It comes complete with instructions of how to unfold the end of the paperclip and use it to punch out the chads on the ballot. Talk about high-tech! So on Tuesday, I was thrilled to walk into Melrose school and vote. There was a short line for them to check my registration and give me my voter card. Then there was a little longer line to wait for my turn in the computerized voting booth. The whole thing only took an hour. But during my time waiting in line, my smile began to fade away. It faded away as I listened to the comments from some of the people. I say comments, but they were really complaints. “I can’t believe how long this line is.” “Why do they only have 3 machines set up—last year they had seven.” “It’s hot in here.” “They need to set up more chairs.” “This line is ridiculous—I don’t have time for this.” In that brief period of time, I went from happy and excited to deeply saddened. How spoiled we have become! Just a short time ago, I’m sure most of us remember the first elections held in Iraq. In order to properly identify the voters and keep them from voting more than once, we dipped their fingers in permanent ink. We remember seeing the pictures in the newspapers of Iraqis proudly posing with their ink-stained fingers held high. But then something we didn’t expect happened. When many of those people returned home from the voting booth, terrorists were there. Those terrorists sought out people with ink-stained fingers and cut them off. When the word got out, our government thought that would be the end of people showing up at the polls to vote. They figured that people would be too scared to vote. But they were wrong. In later voting, the numbers of voters actually increased. The numbers of voters increased knowing that there was a good possibility that when they returned home from voting, they would have their finger chopped off. By the grace of God, we have freedom in this nation that most people in the world can only dream about. But so often, we take that God-given freedom for granted. We can freely walk into a polling place without fear. We can freely go to school or get a job or read a book or write a letter to the editor. And we can freely and openly gather together in worship in the Lord’s house anytime we want. What a privilege. What an honor. What a blessing from God. So, if it is such a privilege and honor and blessing, why do we neglect it? Why do we take it for granted? In many ways we are very distant from the church at Smyrna. We are distant in time. We are distant in location. And many times, we are distant in attitude. While we spend much of our time complaining about trivial things in church like styles and colors and methods and comfort… the church at Smyrna had real issues to deal with. And they dealt with them in such a way that Jesus commended them. This was only one of two churches that Jesus didn’t scold. Why? Because their focus was in the right place. Even though they were terribly persecuted, they pressed on. Like Paul wrote in Philippians 3:14, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” That was the church at Smyrna.
Smyrna was a beautiful city located on a gulf of the Aegean Sea. As a matter of fact, it was known as one of the most beautiful cities in all of the Roman Empire. It still is. Izmir, Turkey is the city that stands now in the place of Smyrna. To this day it is one of the world’s most popular tourist spots because of the beauty of the water and the city. Smyrna wasn’t the most economically or politically important place, but it was financially well-off and noted as a center of science and medicine. But here’s what it was really known for. It was known as the most patriotic place in all of Rome. The people of Smyrna loved Rome. They loved Rome so much that 300 years before this letter, they built a massive temple. They didn’t build it to any gods or goddesses—they built it to Rome itself. A story is told that pointed out the people of Smyrna’s love and dedication to Rome. It seems that one time the Roman army was fighting a war during the winter. The battle had lasted longer than they expected, so they hadn’t prepared for winter weather. When the people of Smyrna heard about it, they all stripped off their own clothes and sent them to the soldiers. They loved Rome that much. And because they loved Rome that much, Smyrna became the center of Roman emperor worship. Around 50 years before this letter was written, they built another temple. This time it was not to Rome itself. It was to Caesar. Caesar worship had become the center of all life in Smyrna. It grew to the point that during the rule of Domitian, Caesar worship was law. That’s why John was exiled to the island of Patmos. And that’s why the church at Smyrna was persecuted. In Smyrna, if you wanted to live, you would have to say, Caesar is Lord. But the members of the church at Smyrna refused. They boldly continued to profess that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. And because of that, many of them lost their lives. Jesus speaks of what they were facing in verse 9. When He says, “I know they works.” He’s telling them, I know what you’re going through. He says, I see—I understand—I know. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus was touched with the feeling of their infirmities. Why? Because He had to endure even more than He would ever require of them. He endured persecution. He endured trials and tribulation. He endured shame and suffering. And He did it without sin. And He emerged victorious over sin and death and the grave. Just like the song says, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future. And life is worth the living, just because He lives.” Bill and Gloria Gather have been around for a long time. But I don’t think they were around back in the church of Smyrna. But even though they weren’t, that song speaks of the spirit of the people of Smyrna. Look at what verse 9 tells us they were going through. They were going through tribulation. That word literally means intense pressure or distress or oppression. And it came from all sides. Outside of their little church, everyone they came in contact with worshipped the emperor. They also worshipped the Roman gods like Zeus and Apollo, but that was secondary. They were fanatically, religiously patriotic. And when the Christians in Smyrna refused to say, “Caesar is Lord,” they caught it from all sides. That led to the poverty problem. When employers found out that a person wouldn’t bow to Caesar, they were fired. And there were no unemployment benefits. There was no welfare. As a matter of fact, if you had any money at all, you wouldn’t be able to spend it. Because if a merchant knew you were a Christian, he wouldn’t even sell to you. The only way the people of the Smyrna church could survive was to get support from other churches and share everything they had. So they were going through tribulation and poverty. But verse 9 also says they were being blasphemed against. We normally think of blasphemy as coming against God. But in this case, it came against Christians. People were saying untrue, slanderous things about them. Some of the charges that were laid against them was that they were plotting against the government. They were even called immoral and cannibals because of lies told about the Lord’s Supper. Do you suppose they repeated the words of Paul that he wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.” At the time of this letter, that was what they were going through. And in verse 10 Jesus told them that it was going to get worse before it got better. He said that prison was in store for many of them. Not only prison, but an extreme form of the kind of tribulation they were experiencing right then. History bears that out.