Seven Churches Series- Smyrna the Brave and Faithful Church

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them- Hebrews 11:36-38

There was no place in the ancient world where it made sense from a practical perspective to be a Christian. Everywhere in the Roman world there was always a very real chance persecution would break out. Men, women and even children were put to death simply for professing Jesus as Lord.

That said. 

There were some places where it was easier to be a Christian than others. This is because most persecution against Christians tended to center around a practice known as Emperor or Caesar worship. 

The Roman Empire was massive. Its territory covered most of Europe, Greece, all of Asia Minor (Turkey), much of the near East, Israel, Spain, much of Africa and then some. The sheer vastness of the territory created a complex problem for Roman rulers. 

Unity. 

How exactly does one unify millions of people from literally hundreds of diverse cultures and all sorts of religious backgrounds? This was a critical question. Without something to unify all those diverse people groups mayhem, rebellion and anarchy would break out all over the Empire. Clearly, none of the emperors wanted any of those things on their watch.  

This is where Caesar worship comes in. 

All adults living in the Roman Empire were obligated by law to go to a temple in their city once a year. While there they were required to throw some incense onto an altar and declare to a Roman official that whatever Caesar happened to be in power at the moment was God. If the person declined for any reason they would be transported to the nearest arena posthaste where they would be crucified, torn limb from limb, fed to a wild animal or beheaded ASAP. 

This ritual was quite effective at unifying the territories. 

However.

It also created all kinds of problems for Christians who refused to worship anyone but Jesus (Exodus 20:3, Psalm 16:4, 1st Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5). 

There were cities where Caesar worship was not always strictly enforced. Christians were safer in those places. Jews were one of a handful of groups lawfully excluded from Caesar worship. If the synagogue leaders in a city allowed the church to be recognized as a sect of Judaism the Christians in the area would be given a break as well. 

The Christians in Smyrna got no breaks. Zero. Zilch. Nada. 

 The bureaucrats in Smyrna gleefully engaged in Caesar worship and were more than happy to execute anyone who refused to give Caesar his “due”. Moreover, the Jews in Smyrna loathed Christians. Not only did they refuse to protect Christians. They were so meanspirited towards the Church they would routinely report Christians as a deviant (anti-government) cult. Jewish leaders would suck up to government officials by suggesting Christians be given the “test” of Emperor worship, thus ensuring their death. The Jews were so off-the-charts cruel to Christians in Smyrna Jesus referred to the whole lot of them as a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). 

Further complicating an already difficult and scary situation, a person’s ability to work anywhere in the Roman Empire was always tied to idol worship. Because the Christians in Smyrna refused to compromise on this issue they were the poorest people in arguably one of the richest cities anywhere in the Roman world. There are two words commonly used for poverty in the Greek language. One means worker. It describes someone who worked with their hands for a living. The other means utter destitution. Jesus used it to describe the poverty of the Church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:10). The Christians in Smyrna were—by any measurable human standard— a rather sad and pathetic group of people. 

But. 

Jesus loved them. A lot. I don’t know if Jesus has favorites, but if He does they were for sure a favorite.  Smyrna is one of two churches out of the seven Jesus does not criticize in any way.  The Christians in Smyrna held a special place in Jesus’ heart for one reason and one reason only: they were faithful. They refused to cave to the immense social pressure they were under. They could have chosen to avoid taking unpopular stands on certain social issues. They could have chosen to pay lip service to Caesar and then told their church friends they didn’t or that they didn’t really mean it (Matthew 10:32).  They could have worshiped in pagan temples to keep their jobs. They could have lightened up on teaching Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Those choices would have helped them gain favor with those in power. Those choices would have allowed them to make a decent living. Those choices would have kept them alive. 

Instead.

The Christians in Smyrna loudly and proudly declared Jesus to be the only God and took the many lumps that came with doing so.  Jesus did not promise them life would get easier, in fact, He did the exact opposite. He forecasted more suffering in their future (Revelation 2:10). However. He also promised He would be with them through the trouble. He also promised He would personally and lavishly reward them for their faithfulness (Revelation 2:10-11).

 Smyrna was not the polished church (that was Ephesus). Nor was it the wealthy church (that was Laodicea). It certainly wasn’t the popular church (that was Sardis) but it was a church Jesus loved passionately because it was the brave and faithful church that was unafraid to take a stand on the things that mattered most. 

The One Takeaway Everyone Should Get From Last Weeks Riots-

Therefore, repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord- Acts 3:10 NASB 

 Like every other human with a shred of decency I have watched the events of the last ten days unfold in horrified shock. It all began with the cruel and indefensible death of George Floyd on May 25th. Most of the reaction to his death was rational and healthy. However, some let their anger foment into violent protests, anarchy, looting and attacks on police officers and innocent bystanders.  It ended (more or less) with the National Guard being called into many cities. Sunday evening my own normally peaceful mid-size city was overrun with angry protesters and senseless violence.

 Monday morning, I began seeking God in earnest regarding the situation. Because I’m me, I like to know the root cause of every issue. Consequently, the first question I had for the Lord was why? Why does it always come back to race in this country? Why is racism such an oozy, festering, wound here? America is not the only place racism is a problem. The Apostle Paul repeatedly addressed the issue of racism in his writings (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:9-11, Ephesians 2:11-17). I doubt he would have felt compelled to do so if the problem were not hard baked into the human condition. That said, America has a different kind of problem with racism than most other countries. I think this is because America’s bigotry was born out of oppression and cruelty rather than garden-variety prejudice. Nonetheless, it seems we should be a little further along in the healing process. A lot has been done in the last five decades to try and right the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow.  

 Then, it occurred to me the whole ugly muddle is an example of what happens anytime anyone refuses to be sorry for their sins.      

 The generation that fought to keep slavery legal certainly did not apologize for their sins. Instead, the whole lot of them collectively refused to be even the tiniest bit remorseful. Their sin was compounded by the fact they knew better. People who lived in America at that time were well-acquainted with Christian ethics and principles (Luke 6:31, Hebrews 13:16). The all-encompassing moral code of Christianity is that Christians are to treat people the way they wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12). It really is that simple. Literally, no one wants to be a slave. Therefore, forcing another person into slavery is clearly immoral. Post-Civil War clergy could have advanced the healing process if they had been willing to preach repentance. Instead pastors passively and actively endorsed the bigoted behavior of the people they were called to lead to better things (Hebrews 6:9).  

 Then the thing happened that always happens when a person or group of people willfully refuses to confess they were wrong and be sorry for their sins. They passed down a vile, sinister, festering generational sin to their children.  The generations that followed made a terrible situation worse by institutionalizing bigotry through the passing of Jim Crow laws.

 Then the thing happened that always happens when a person or group of people is sinned against repeatedly without apology. Their hurt becomes a festering woundedness that is passed down to the next generation. When hurt is passed down for generations bitterness can begin to feel like a birthright. As a victim of an entirely different form of generational woundedness I have learned forgiveness is the only path to wholeness and peace.  I understand from personal experience forgiving generational sin is hard because it feels as if we are excusing the inexcusable simply by letting go and giving our rage to God. That being said, it must be done.

 I am not stupid or prideful enough to think I can solve the problem of racism or the generational suffering caused by the evils of bigotry in one blogpost. As if. That feat would be categorically above my rather meager paygrade. All I can really do is pray for healing for those wounded by racism. I can make it my aim to live a life that sees people first and color second. I can be fair to others, I can choose to judge others based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. I can call out injustice when I see it, rather than simply turning a blind eye to evil.

 We live in a time and place that screams for individual self-examination.  

 Not all people are racists. If you fall into that classification, the only acceptable course is repentance, you will be judged by God if you refuse to do so. That said, racism is not the only sin that ruins lives and produces generational mayhem, every choice has a consequence, especially the choice to keep sinning or to hang on to anger (Hebrews 10:26-31, Hebrews 12:15).  Any sin we choose not to repent of or any wound we do not take to God for healing has the potential to cause the same kind of ugly ripples racism has.

 Do the future a favor and take a hard look at your life and attitudes. If you need to repent—do it. If you need to forgive a sin that was perpetrated against you— do it.

Now. 

Future generations deserve better.

 

Why it’s Christian to Know History and tell the Truth About History-

These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants~ Esther 9:28 

In an interview, the congresswoman from Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib, explained that when she thinks about the holocaust she experiences a “calming feeling”. Ms. Tlaib expounded by saying she feels “heartened” by the knowledge that the Palestinian people worked hard and made many sacrifices to create a safe haven for the Jews after the holocaust.

Anyone with access to even a poorly written history book knows that Ms. Tlaib, is best case scenario ignorant of some key facts and, worst case scenario is intentionally rewriting some elementary points of history. It is true that that the Palestinian people did make room for the Jews after World War II ended. However, it is also true that the Palestinian people did not do this willingly, joyfully or without a fight.  Another key detail being omitted by Ms. Tlaib is that the Palestinian leader (mufti) at the time (Amin al-Hussenini) was a staunch ally of Hitler and hardly a gleeful advocate of a Jewish homeland. 

The Holocaust is not the only historical event or movement being retold from a less than honest perspective these days. Communism has also gotten a complete makeover. Gone are the historical accounts of gulags, propaganda crusades, starvation campaigns, nepotism and genocide. The evils of Communism have been retold as a Scandinavian success story whose reputation has been sullied by a few bad actors in some Eastern bloc countries (Soviet Union, Romania, East Germany, etc.) who failed to implement a righteous movement properly.  As a result, the horrors of communism have been largely forgotten and it is now cool to light things on fire and demand the end of the capitalism system

In the United States there is a movement afoot to erase all details of any unpleasantness from early American history. Statues commemorating the Civil War have been torn down and the names of those Founding Fathers who owned slaves have been removed from schools and official buildings. History curriculums have been rewritten to focus only on the negative facets of early American leaders who owned slaves or held views that are now discredited.  

  In some instances (as with the Civil War statues) the twisting is done in the name of ensuring that no tender soul is triggered by some unpleasant historical fact. This is a noble but deeply misguided desire Christians must fight against (Psalm 45:4). It is impossible to learn anything from a history we are ignorant of and God calls His people to truth (John 8:32). The whole truth about history must be told to prevent it from being repeated.  We need society to grow from the mistakes made by our ancestors. Furthermore, it is critical we judge historical figures in the context of their time rather than ours. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder how a rational human being could possibly think it was okay to own another person. That said, our generation would be wise to stop being so ridiculously patronizing and scornful of previous generations.  We should be much more cautious about judging those long dead for actions and attitudes that were culturally accepted and legally permitted during their lifetime. There is a plethora of culturally accepted and perfectly legal behaviors in our time that history may judge our generation harshly for in the future (Matthew 7:1-3). 

Seriously. 

Our society is in a precarious place.

There has never been a time when it was more important for wise, thinking, Christian people to know history, teach their children history and to be willing to call out those who are attempting to rewrite history (Deuteronomy 32:7). 

Our liberty, religious freedom and the health of our culture might just depend on it (Jeremiah 7:28).