‘Faithful, even to the point of death’ transcript continued…
In a Roman arena in AD 155 the gathered crowd were baying for blood. They demanded that the old Christian bishop Polycarp be arrested. So he was dragged before the Roman governor who asked him to deny his faith, swear by the genius of Caesar and curse Christ. Polycarp refused. This is what he famously said, ‘Eighty-six years have I served the Lord Jesus Christ and he never once wronged me. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ The crowd were furious and demanded that he should be killed. And so, this godly old Christian man was burned alive.
A couple of years ago my colleague visited Nigeria and met some church leaders. They went for a walk around the church offices and one of the leaders said to him, ‘I want to introduce you to two of my colleagues. These are dead men walking.’ The two men had just been called to serve in the north of the country where Islamist militants are trying to wipe out the church. As soon as they took up their positions, they knew they would become targets.
We could tell a thousand similar stories from church history and from the present. And the question is – what is it that possesses these men and women to risk their lives like this? Why didn’t Polycarp just deny Christ and save his life? Why did these two young men offer to go to Northern Nigeria – one of the most dangerous places in the world for a Christian. Why not become an engineer or a lawyer or even a pastor in the safer Christian south?
Well we are going to look at some verses in Revelation 2 to try to get some answers. This is John’s vision of the risen Jesus speaking to the seven churches and verses 8-11 are Jesus’ message to the church in Smyrna.
8 ‘To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 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, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.’
There is lots we could say about these verses but for now I just want to highlight three important paradoxes.
Riches in poverty
The first is this – riches in poverty. Look at verse 9. ‘I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!’
Up until this point in the ancient world Christianity had existed as a kind of sect within Judaism but now it was beginning to be recognised as a new independent religion. And this meant that it no longer benefited from the special protection that the Roman authorities gave to the Jews. Now the Roman governors were beginning to ask ‘why is it that these Christians are not sacrificing to the Roman gods? And why does this young man or young woman refuse to worship the emperor?’
And this new level of attention brought economic consequences for Christians. Much of first century life revolved around the pagan temple. If you wanted to get clients for your little construction business, you had to be part of the construction guild that met in the temple and sacrificed to the gods. If you withdrew from this network, you wouldn’t win the next tender. Christians would also have had their property confiscated as a punishment, and then who was going to give a job to someone who had the word Christian on their CV? So Christians in Smyrna were facing poverty because of their faith.
Today in Pakistan Christians have very few employment options. Many of them end up working in the lowest-paid jobs as street sweepers or brick kiln workers. Our partner in Pakistan told us that these jobs are sometimes advertised as being for Christians only. Can you imagine that level of discrimination?
The Christians in Smyrna were poor. But look at what Jesus says to them. He says, ‘you are rich.’ What a paradox. In the world’s eyes these people had nothing – poor houses, poor jobs, no connections, no possessions, no prospects. And yet Jesus says they are rich. How can that be?
Well they are operating within a different economy. Through their faith and obedience, they are accumulating permanent wealth that can never be lost or stolen. Our present economic wealth is so transitory. It can disappear in a matter of weeks if the boss says you’re fired. It can be lost on the stock market overnight. It can be burned to the ground in seconds. But in contrast what we do for Jesus in this life has permanence. No one can take it away. It stands forever in the record of heaven and it makes us rich in God’s eyes.
I had the privilege of visiting some Christian Pakistani refugees a couple of years ago who had been forced to flee their homes because of their faith. They had so little. They were totally dependent on other people for food and clothes and accommodation. One family of seven had gone down to eating two meals a day because that was all they could afford. But the same family got up early each morning for an hour of family devotions. They worshipped God in their tears. All of them seemed to have such a strong faith and such a deep spirituality. At first sight they seemed so poor but actually they were incredibly rich. That is the first paradox – riches in poverty.
God’s Providence in Satan’s attacks
The next paradox to notice in these verses is God’s providence in Satan’s attacks. Look at verse 10, ‘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.’
Poverty is not the end of the story for these Christians in Smyrna. They can expect to experience much worse treatment in the near future. Some of them will be put in prison.
Many Christians around the world today have to spend time behind bars because of their faith. In Eritrea there are hundreds of Christians currently imprisoned – many of them have been there for 10 years or more.
Jesus says here that it is the devil who will put some of them in prison. That might sound strange at first. The verse before says that it was Jewish slanderers who opposed the Christians in Smyrna and we know that it was the Roman authorities who actually put people in prison. What has the devil got to do with it?
Well Jesus is simply pointing out that there is something bigger and more sinister standing behind all of this human opposition. As Christians it is important for us to realise that we are involved in a cosmic spiritual struggle. It is more than just paranoid governments and fervent nationalists who attack God’s people. Ultimately Satan, our great adversary, stands behind these attacks. He incites all kinds of hatred in the world.
And we need to recognise that because it will affect our response to persecution. If we consider persecution to be a purely human response, we will try to counter it only in human ways – with political advocacy and humanitarian aid etc. But if we recognise that persecution is also spiritual, we will know that we must also respond spiritually with prayer and with biblical understanding.
I want to encourage you to commit to praying regularly for our persecuted brothers and sisters. You can visit our website and sign up to receive our regular prayer alert emails. You can also subscribe to our free magazine which comes with the Prayer Shield prayer diary. You might not be able to do anything else. But you can pray, and we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of that.
So, Satan stands behind the opposition. But in all of this there is something much more profound that we need to understand. Because ultimately it is not Satan who is in control of what is happening. Satan can only ever be penultimate. Ultimately it is God who stands behind all these circumstances, and this is a great paradox. As we are shown so often in the Bible story it turns out that God is working for the good of his people even in the middle of Satan’s attacks.
In verse 10 Jesus says that the prison cell will be a place of testing – in other words a place where the faith of these believers is tried and proved to be genuine. Satan has put them in prison, but God will take this evil intention and transform it. He will use it to demonstrate to the world that these people genuinely do belong to Him and that His new kingdom is worth suffering for.
And Jesus says that the persecution will last for ten days. This is a symbolic number that infers that the persecution will last for a set period of time. In other words, it will come to an end. God has it under control. Satan’s power is always limited. The moment God says the word it will be over.
Petr Jasek is a Czech national who was arrested in Sudan because of his Christian work. In January 2016 he was sentenced to life in prison but was eventually released after spending 14 months behind bars. His story is quite amazing. Two years before his arrest he had a very unsettling dream about being put in prison. In his dream he saw a yellow prison door close behind him. Two years later the cell he was kept in had exactly the same door, and this reassured him that his arrest was not out of God’s knowledge or control.
One day he was sitting in the prison courtyard reading these words from Psalm 126, ‘When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion we were like those who dream.’ That moment, very unexpectedly, the prison guard came to tell him that he was being released and after a few more days he was back in the Czech Republic giving interviews to the media and testifying to the faithfulness of God. God was in control of it the whole way. There was a set time and then it was over. God’s providence in Satan’s attacks.
Life in Death
And the final paradox in these verses is this – life in death. Look at the second half of verse 10. ‘Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.’
For some of these Christians in Smyrna their faith would cost them their lives. And Jesus’ challenge to them is to remain faithful. Even if it gets to that stage – don’t deny Me. It seems like a big ask, doesn’t it? How do you feel about those words if you apply them literally to yourself? You see here we get to the crux of it and the question we asked at the start. Why were Polycarp and those two courageous Nigerian pastors, and countless others, prepared to die for Jesus?
Well it’s because in death there is life. This really is the heart of the matter. It is the greatest paradox of the Christian message. In order to access life, we must be prepared to embrace death. To follow Jesus through death into the new existence that he has secured for us where there is no more suffering or hatred.
Now you might be saying that is all very well for Christians living in Nigeria who might actually be facing death for Jesus today. But what about us, how does this apply to us? Well for every Christian every day is a day when we must be prepared to die. For most of us probably not physically. But we must be prepared to die to our participation in the corruption of this world. We must be prepared to root out our selfishness, to reject bitterness and envy and greed when they surface in our lives, and to work against the structures of injustice in the world that we are all complicit in. We must be prepared to live our lives in anticipation of the world to come, to bring its values to bear on our lives, to love our enemies, to acknowledge the poor, to endure hardship. You see this is not just a message for literal martyrs. It is a message for all of us who claim to know Jesus. ‘Be faithful to the point of death and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.’
Let me return briefly to the people we mentioned at the start. You may know that Polycarp was the bishop of a certain town called Smyrna. He is also said to have been a disciple of the apostle John and it is very possible that as a young man he was one of the first people to read the words of this letter, ‘To the leader of the church in Smyrna write …be faithful, even to the point of death.’ I wonder if he knew back then just how literally he would fulfil that command.
And then our two Nigerian pastors. I am not exactly sure where they are today or what they are doing. But I know they are certainly treating Jesus’ words in Revelation 2 very seriously. The question is this – with all our privileges, opportunities and distractions will we take his words seriously too?
If you don’t already receive our Voice magazine by post or email, then please let me encourage you to subscribe now on our website releaseinternational.org. This will help you to be informed and to pray and it will show you other ways you can support those who are suffering. But it will also enrich your own faith. As you read about the courage of our brothers and sisters and the faithfulness of God in their adversity you will be stretched, and you will be inspired.
And please do share our Lockdown Church resources with your Christian friends and get them thinking and praying too.
Jesus says, ‘Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.’