“The End of Suffering”
February 14, 2010
The risen one promises that faithful suffering is followed by eternal life.
I. The words of the risen one. (Revelation 2:8)
II. The fact of suffering. (Revelation 2:9-10)
III. The crown of life. (Revelation 2:10-11)
At any given moment in the life of a church, there can be many kinds of suffering and trials going on, though we may not use those words. In our church right now several people have lost their jobs. This can be a trial or testing; it brings a high level of stress, a struggle to make ends meet, and possibly loneliness, depression, loss of a sense of purpose, or family conflict.
There are some among us physically suffering, whether Donna Reed continuing to fight chronic illness, or several people recovering from a stomach bug that was short but unpleasant, or some suffering the decline of age and its many unhappy manifestations. I sympathized with all those people earlier this week when I got a back spasm while putting away a frying pan and got discouraged by the return of a not fondly remembered stiffness and pain.
Then there are those suffering for their faith. One of our missionary families was told this week that their visas would not be renewed, part of a pattern of such rulings against believers in that country. They were amazed that the officials put in writing an argument of ridiculous reasons for denying permission to stay, making it clear that the denial was both arbitrary and targeted. So they’ve had, temporarily they hope, to leave the country.
Of course in other places Christians suffer more blatantly. North Korea has been named the world’s worst persecutor of Christians for the eighth year by the ministry Open Doors, which said the government was arresting and killing Christians, as well as torturing them in “horrible ways”. There is evidence that arrested Christians are used as guinea pigs in the testing of biological or chemical weapons. Yet in spite of this, Christianity is growing in North Korea. In other countries, especially in Africa and Asia, civil unrest and religious hatred has killed many Christians. While governments look the other way and wash their hands of the outcomes, thousands die each year.
Then there is the natural suffering that is a consequence of living in a fallen world. The government of Haiti recently raised the estimate of those killed in the earthquake to 230,000, roughly equal to the number who died in the Asian tsunami earlier in the decade. And the millions left behind are suffering all the ravages of disease and hunger and exposure. So there is a huge amount of trial, suffering and persecution, from the doors of your house to the ends of the earth. Furthermore this suffering, in all its degrees, extends far far back into the biblical record, and will continue until Jesus comes.
If we think we worship a God who loves and cares for people we must expect him to address this suffering, explain it to the extent it can be understood, give us reasons to have hope and be faithful. And he does: He gives hope of an eternity with no more death or mourning or crying or pain. One of the places He addresses our sufferings with that hope is in the letter to Smyma we’re studying in Revelation this week. It’s the shortest of these seven letters.
Revelation 2:8-11: 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. 9I know your afflictions and your poverty--yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do 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 the crown of life. 11He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
I. The words of the risen one. (Revelation 2:8)
We’ve concluded that the Apostle John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ on the island of Patmos about 95AD. He then sent copies to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Later he may have been released and returned to ministry in Ephesus. There, according to the best records, he’d had a young disciple named Polycarp, fruitful. Polycarp, probably born in 68 AD, lived in a crucial time and was a bridge between the Apostles and the beliefs and practices the early church. In fact it was John who appointed Polycarp bishop of the church in Smyrna.
Smyrna, about 35 miles north of Ephesus, is the only one of the seven cities still in existence. It’s now called Izmir, the second largest city in Turkey. Smyma was a proud and beautiful city, which described itself on its coins as the “first of Asia in beauty and size.” It boasted a famous stadium, library and public theater, clustered around an acropolis on a 500 foot rise overlooking the harbor. It also thought of itself as a city reborn or resurrected, since it had been destroyed some 700 years earlier and only rebuilt in 300 BC. It was a thoroughly Roman city, yet with a significant Jewish population.
And all of that plays in, one way or the other, to the words of this short letter. For example, Jesus identifies himself, verse 8, by saying “These are the words of him who First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Just as the city had died and come to life again, so Jesus identifies himself as the one who was crucified and rose. Yet he is also the one who is eternal, who was first and is last, who existed from before time, from eternity past with the father and who lives now and who will reign forever and ever.
II. The fact of suffering. (Revelation 2:9-10)
His eternal resurrected life is a substantial answer to the suffering of this world. And the Smyrna church needs that answer. Verse 9: “I know your afflictions and your poverty--yet you are rich!” Jesus captures their situation in two words. The first, affliction is a pretty common and broad term for any kind of Christian tribulation. The root word simply means ‘to press on’. As such it can include all the types of our distresses that we mentioned earlier.
For example in Matthew 24 Jesus clearly uses it to talk about the persecution of believers in the last days: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted, or afflicted, and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” But in John 16:21 Jesus uses it for something as common as the anguish of childbirth. And Paul uses it in a very general sense in Acts 14:22, saying “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Yet this is also the Word used later in Revelation for ‘the’ tribulation.’
The other word is poverty, which in Greek is used in the sense of having not just too little, but nothing at all. This implies that these believers in Smyrna not only weren’t from the wealthy upper classes, but may have been further impoverished by their commitment to following Jesus. They may have had their livelihood and even their possessions taken by their persecutors.
And clearly there was persecution, especially from the so-called Jews. Jesus says “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Strong words, and yet all kinds of data, including information from Polycarp we’ll talk about later, indicates that the Jews continued to be the center of opposition to Christianity for many years, beginning with their opposition to people like Peter and Paul. They saw Jesus as a blasphemer and his followers as irreligious and law-breakers.
Other Scriptures agree that Jews who oppose God’s plan are Jews in name only. In the gospel of John the Jews say ‘we have Abraham for our father.’ Jesus says “If you were Abraham’s children you would do the things Abraham did.” Instead “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The synagogue of Satan was a community of people who were ethnically Jews but had rejected Jesus and were intent on afflicting and persecuting those who were following Jesus.
III. The crown of life. (Revelation 2:10-11)
In verse 10 Jesus speaks to strengthen the church against these sufferings: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.” This is a third general word for affliction, and is the used most frequently to refer to the passion of Christ.
But it’s also used more generally; Pilate’s wife suffers because of what she dreams will happen to Jesus; the bleeding woman of Mark 5 suffers at the hands of many physicians. You and I may not suffer persecution or martyrdom, but our sufferings are still at least a little bit in view here in verse 10.
For the church in Smyrna, the suffering would be specifically be persecution: “I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.” Satan himself, undoubtedly using both Jews and Romans as his instruments, would throw them in prison to test them. Jesus says this will last ten days, which could be ten literal days, but because there is so much symbolism in Revelation, we can’t be sure it’s not some other short period of time, months or even years. It can’t be much longer than that since it’s much smaller than other symbolic numbers in Revelation.
Now you may have noticed something already: we’re almost to the end of this short letter and we haven’t turned the corner to rebuke. We’re not going to. Jesus never says to this suffering church ‘I have this against you’. He doesn’t say anything that would lead them or lead us to the conclusion ‘I’m being punished.’ No, he commends them and exhorts them but he does not imply that they somehow earned or deserved their suffering.
This truth speaks into our lives as well. Most of the circumstantial suffering we encounter isn’t a direct result of our sin. It’s a consequence of the fallen world and of the sins of others. Now it’s true there’s consequential suffering. we’ll hear about it in these letters. Often sin carries its own consequences; the sin of sexual infidelity can lead to the consequence of sexual disease, and will lead to the consequences of damaged and broken relationships.
But here there is no rebuke, only suffering for the sake of Jesus. And Scripture teaches that this suffering has positive consequences. Let’s pause and look at two of the key suffering passages in Scripture and remind ourselves of some of the things God is about, whether we are suffering modestly or massively.
Romans 5:1-5 “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance: 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoini us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Suffering produces perseverance. This is perhaps the most basic fruit of suffering.
Perseverance can be thought of as moving on against resistance, and suffering is the resistance against which we are called to move. The slogan ‘no pain, no gain’ fits. In any sport or physical activity, if you’re not working against resistance, you’re not gaining strength. You don’t get strong arms lifting balloons, but weights. You don’t get strong legs by kicking the air, but by running up the hill. Suffering is the medium in which perseverance develops.
There’s a well known sermon illustration which goes “A man was sleeping when suddenly his room filled with light and the Savior appeared. The Lord told him he was to serve Him by pushing against a large rock with all his might. This the man did, toiling sunup to sundown; his shoulder set squarely against the cold massive surface of the rock. Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and worn out, feeling his whole day had been spent in vain.” Let me just pause and ask you: isn’t there a rock you’ve been pushing, and each night you feel like you’ve made no progress?
Seeing that the man showed signs of discouragement, Satan began to whisper to him: “Why kill yourself over this?, you’re never going to move it,” giving the man the idea that he was an unworthy servant because he wasn’t moving the massive stone. Disheartened, the man toyed with giving up. But he was wise enough to pray instead: “Lord, I’ve labored hard and long, putting forth all my strength to do what You asked of me. Yet after all this time, I have not even budged that rock. What’s wrong? Why am I failing?”
And the Lord responded, “My friend, when I asked you to serve Me I told you to push against the rock with all your strength and that you have done. But never once did I say I expected you to move it. Now you come to Me, your strength spent, thinking you have failed. But look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled; your back sinewed and brown. Your hands are calloused from constant pressure and your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much. Your calling was to be obedient and push, and this you have done. I, my friend will move the rock.”
Suffering develops perseverance, and Paul says that perseverance develops character, godly character, and character develops hope. Do you see that connection? As you persevere in suffering your capacity to hope isn’t diminished, but grows. And that hope, Paul says, is not disappointed, because in the present moment God pours out his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit. Not every suffering person you meet will overflow with God’s love, but most of the believers you will meet who are deeply aware are God’s love will be those who have gone through notable suffering.
So what is the purpose of suffering? To develop perseverance, which develops Godly character, which manifests itself in hope which is sustained day to day by the outpouring of God’s love. And yet we tend to want to avoid this?
James says “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Suffering develops perseverance; perseverance yields maturity. You grow in Christlikeness until you’re the complete person God intended you to be.
And when that happens you will not lack anything. Jesus says to the church at Smyrna ‘I know your poverty, but you are rich.’ Why? Because they suffer. James says God has “chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him” In God’s economy suffering is a great reversal: it seems to make you poor and broken; it really enriches and strengthens you.
So Jesus says, verse 10, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The ultimate end of suffering, its completion and its purpose is eternal life. Even if suffering leads to death, whether on a bed of illness or on a martyr’s pyre, Satan cannot touch the eternal life that you and I have received in Christ Jesus: life as a crown, as the culmination of all that he has been intending all along.
Listen — do you have ears? Listen to what the Spirit says to the churches: He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. Those who are faithful to the point of death will not die. Those who cling to him now in suffering will rise to live with him in glory. In contrast, those who refuse to cling to him by faith will rise to live eternally separated from the bliss of his glory and suffering in the worst imaginable way because of their rebellion. The book of Revelation is a book of contrasts — eternal life as a blessing to those who believe, eternal death as a consequence to those who don’t.
The risen one promises that faithful suffering is followed by eternal life. And as God’s people you and I are to be strengthened for every kind of suffering by that promise. I began this message by mentioning John’s disciple Polycarp, who went on to be the beloved bishop of the church of Smyrna, and suffered just the kind of suffering this letter foretold. I don’t know if his suffering was part of that ten days Jesus mentioned, but the Lord definitely knew it would come. And Polycarp shows us how these truths work out in a believer’s life.