Don’t Be Surprised

Although Jesus was not confrontational merely for the sake of confrontation, his teaching nevertheless caused much consternation among his listeners. His mere presence stirred up strong emotion. He said at one point, “I provoke hatred because I show the world how evil its deeds really are.” The  Good Shepherd had appeared, but they said, “He is leading people astray.” To the One who cast out devils they said, “You have a demon!” Speaking of the Son of God who taught the very words of the Father, the religious leaders said, “Only foolish people who are already damned listen to this imposter.” And Jesus tells us, “If they did these things to me don’t be surprised if they do them to you.”

Jesus was (and is) reality. And when reality “shows up” mere concepts of reality are exposed for the facades they actually are.  The presence of Truth provokes, divides, loves, heals and brings liberty- all at the same time. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day said, “We know God!” Jesus’ presence exposed the reality of their situation. ” You don’t really know him.” he said. “If you did, you would recognize me .” The Truth exposed their hypocrisy, and they hated him for it. “Don’t be surprised if they do the same to you.”

We are living in a day in whlucysurpriseich authentic Christianity will put you at odds with the mainstream. Really, it always has. We in America have had it so easy for so long, and I believe we are beginning to see that the jig is up. From now on, truly following Jesus is going to cost us. We will experience increasing rejection, estrangement from “church” friends and perhaps even physical persecution in the days to come. Jesus told us that it would be this way. “Don’t be surprised if they do the same to you.”

I’ll leave you with this:

After their release the apostles went back to their friends and reported to them what the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard it they raised their voices to God in united prayer and said, ‘Lord, you are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ’. For truly against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel were gathered together to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word, by stretching out your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ When they had prayed their meeting-place was shaken; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God fearlessly.”

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Smyrna: I Know You

“I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9)

We are continuing our look into the letter to the church in Smyrna found in Revelation 2:8-11. As I stated last time, I want to take the letter verse by verse, look at some history that will help us understand how the church at Smyrna may have received the letter originally, and then hopefully point out some relevant application for us. Let’s look at verse nine.

Smyrna was a city that had seen its share of war, destruction, and death, but by the time John wrote his letter to the church located there, Smyrna’s loyalty to Rome had paid off handsomely and it had become a very prosperous city indeed. It boasted a famous stadium, library, and the largest public theater in Asia. Smyrna was rich, but right in the midst of all the wealth Smyrna possessed was a group of believers who suffered intense persecution and poverty. The persecution came from two main sources: Jews and Rome itself.

A large population of Jews occupied Smyrna, and they despised the Christians. The Christians were associated with Judaism yet their claims regarding Jesus threatened to create waves in the community and destabilize civic relations between the Jews and the Roman leaders of Smyrna. It would seem that the Jews of Smyrna enjoyed at least some affluence and influence within the community, and the church in Smyrna was viewed as a threat to both. The Jews went to great lengths to disassociate themselves from the Christians in Smyrna, and hurt them in any way they could manage.

 Then there was Rome itself. At first it was the “spirit of Rome” the Dea Roma that had been worshipped. This Rome that had brought stability, prosperity, and peace (pax Romana ) was easily made an object of worship. But there is a certain degree of ambiguity when dealing with merely the “spirit of Rome.”  So, the Emperor became the personification of this spirit, and voila; Caesar worship was born. Once a year the people had to burn a pinch of incense on the altar, and declare, “Caesar is Lord.” This is the one thing the Christians of Smyrna could not do. And for their disloyalty, they were branded as criminals and regularly faced imprisonment and death.

Despite my simplistic and brief look at the context in which the church in Smyrna found itself, I hope you get an idea of the pressure the they were under. Undoubtedly, as a result of the sufferings endured at the hands of the Jews and Rome, the Christians in Smyrna regularly had their property and belongings seized. They were Smyrna’s “scum of the earth.” What a comfort it must have been for them to hear their Lord Jesus say, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich).” Jesus assured them that he knew all about them and their situation. He invited them to view prosperity in a different way. He told them that the poverty and suffering that made them contemptible in the eyes of the people of Smyrna were the very things that made them rich in the eyes of the One who knows all things. Jesus says, “Church in Smyrna, I know everything that is going on, and I want you to see it how I see it.”

 Church of America, Jesus knows all about us. He knows our situation, and he knows our hearts. I’ve got good news and bad news for us who make up the church in America. The good news is Jesus knows. The bad news is Jesus knows. He knows those who are his, whose hearts belong to him. He knows the ones who claim to be His and are not.   He sees when people make fun of you in the work place and universities on account of his name. He sees the tears shed in prayer. He knows every pressure brought to bear against you. He knows you and your situation. He also knows how we here in America have made church into a business. He knows our preoccupation with the things of this world. He sees it when we hate each other, and lie to one another. He knows how we love our doctrines and denominations more than we love him. He sees how we manipulate each other. He knows when we speak out of our own minds and imaginations yet proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord.” He knows that we love the American Dream more than we do him. He sees our self-absorbed demands for justice.

 Church, let us come to the One who knows us inside and out. May God’s Spirit  help us see tribulation and poverty the way He sees it. May his words, “I Know.” be that which both brings us comfort, and leads us to repentance.

Smyrna: I Became Dead but Live!

Of the seven letters written to the churches in the book of Revelation, I think it is the church in Smyrna that we, the American Church, have the least in common with. The irony of it all is that I believe that the letter to Smyrna is precisely the letter we need to hear from most. Soooo, I want to take the letter verse by verse, look at some history that will help us understand how the folks at Smyrna may have received the letter originally, and then hopefully point out some relevant application for us. Let’s do it.

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’”(Revelation 2:8-11 ESV)

Jesus greeted Smyrna with the words “[The One speaking to you is the] first and the last, who died and came to life.” Those words would have immediately gotten the attention of the people because Smyrna was literally a city that had come back from the dead. Smyrna was a piece of prime real-estate, and although it had been the site of many civil wars, its location made it advantageous to rebuild. Around 580 BC Smyrna had been destroyed by Alyattes, the king of neighboring Lydia, and had lain “dead” for centuries. It was ultimately rebuilt around 290 BC by Lysimachus and Antigonus. So when Jesus says, “I am the One who became dead but lives,” the people were reminded of their own history, but more importantly that the One speaking to them knows first hand what it truly means for life to come through death. He is the first and last, the One who like Smyrna had died and lives. And this One would never die again! And with the suffering, persecution and death the church in Smyrna faced, it was important for them to understand that for the believer, death is not the end. In fact, it is through death that life comes.

I think the Church in America has forgotten that although we do have life in Christ, this life does not come as a result of pursuing “life, liberty, and happiness,” but from embracing the cross. Only as we die to ourselves, pick up our own cross and follow him do we know what it means to truly live. In our ease and prosperity we have forgotten that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Our ministers sometimes see and promote themselves with such arrogant flamboyance forgetting that a true servant of the church is one who says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” – Life coming through death! We have become so consumed with preserving our lives and way of life that we scarcely speak of having been crucified with Christ and living only because of Christ who lives in us. I think we here in the West must remember that even as Jesus became a corpse and lives, so we too must participate in his death that we might live.

In the days that lie ahead, the American church may indeed find out what it means to face the tribulation the church in Smyrna endured. I pray that we will heed the words of Him who became dead but lives.

To be continued…