When Life Goes Bad
October 21, 2011
It happens that I am writing these words from my hotel room in Seoul, South Korea. In a few days we will fly to Dalian, China where we will meet with Christian students from several local universities. We all know that life as a Christian is not easy in China. If you speak up for your faith, you risk official harassment and sometimes outright persecution. I received a note a few days ago describing what the students want to talk about when we get together. Here is what the students wrote:
We often face situations in life that buffet our faith in the Lord, for example:
- When our family members or ourselves face injustice
- When we encounter health problems
- When our non-believing family members die suddenly
- When we see Christians whom we know and who love the Lord encounter bad things in their lives or their family members.
When we encounter such situations in our life, we often wonder “Does the Lord really love us?” What is the Lord’s attitude towards these situations? And what does He feel about such situations?
And also when we visit orphanages or the hospital for handicapped children, we see many life tragedies, like children who lack mental and emotional abilities because their brains are not developed. In such cases, we wonder “Why do such things happen?” How does the Lord view such situations? How should we face and react to such kind of situations?
As I pondered what those university students wrote, it struck me that the problems of life are the same everywhere. Despite the very great cultural differences between East and West and between the Global North and the Global South, the needs of the human heart are the same wherever you go.
The problems of life are the same everywhere.
There are times when life goes bad for all of us. The letter from Jesus to the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) helps us think biblically about the struggles of life, especially those struggles that come because of our Christian faith.
The Ornament of Asia
If you travel about 40 miles north of Ephesus, you will come to a natural harbor that in the first century was home to the city of Smyrna. Today Smyrna is called Izmir, a leading city in modern Turkey. Because of its location and its beauty, Smyrna was known as the “Ornament of Asia.” In AD 26 a competition was held to determine which city would win the right to build a temple for Caesar-worship. Smyrna won that contest and took great pride in its loyalty to Rome. Surrounding the hill that dominated the cityscape one could find temples to various pagan deities. Over time a number of Jews migrated to Smyrna and became an important part of the business scene. They bought and sold goods bound for Rome to the west and Persia to the east.
Once a year the loyal citizens of Smyrna would publicly declare, “Caesar is Lord.”
Because of the prevailing paganism and because of the citywide emperor worship, Christians in Smyrna found themselves under unrelenting pressure. Once a year the loyal citizens of Smyrna would publicly declare, “Caesar is Lord.” This no faithful Christian could ever do. Thus the believers in Jesus found themselves unpopular and continually criticized. To live in Smyrna meant you were in a hotbed of Caesar-worship and pagan sacrifice. As we will see, that put the Christians at a distinct disadvantage.
We should note that Smyrna is one of only two churches in Revelation 2-3 for which our Lord has no words of rebuke (the other is Philadelphia). The silence of our Lord is striking when you consider his harsh words for other nearby churches. It is not because of any false sympathy that keeps our Lord from rebuking them. A deeper reality is at work here.
Their suffering had made them strong.
Their suffering had made them strong.
It had stripped them of everything except Jesus himself. Here was a church obviously in trouble. Their enemies clearly had the upper hand. Seeing the beleaguered believers of Smyrna, Christ has nothing negative to say.
This little letter tells us something about this church and much more about the Lord himself. For the moment let us pass over his self-description in verse 8 and consider what we know about Jesus from his message to the suffering saints of Smyrna. Through these brief words, we will find much to encourage us in our own struggles.
I. Jesus knows your trouble.
“I know your afflictions” (v. 8).
The word “afflictions” does not describe the ordinary troubles of life. It refers rather to what we might call catastrophic pressure. In other contexts it was used of a man being crushed by a massive boulder. When the sky falls in around us, when all hope is lost, when darkness surrounds us and the enemy closes in, Jesus says, “I know your afflictions.” When I read that sentence, I think of the suffering believers today living in Muslim lands or those brave Christians facing attacks from angry Hindu mobs in India or the saints in Nigeria who are hacked to death by fanatical Muslims.
These things happen every day around the world. It has been so since the beginning and it still true today.
II. Jesus knows your poverty.
“I know . . . your poverty-yet you are rich!” (v. 9)
These words are literal, not metaphorical. Christians in Smyrna evidently came from the lower rungs on the economic ladder. If they once had been rich in worldly goods, those days were long past. No doubt many had lost their jobs in the trade-guilds because they would not say, “Caesar is Lord.”
To these poverty-stricken Christians, Christ says, “But you are rich!”
Is he mocking them?
It all depends on how we value time versus eternity. If this life is all that matters, then the words of Jesus are nothing more than pious nonsense. What good is it to say, “You are rich!” to those who are starving?
If this life is all that matters, then the words of Jesus are nothing more than pious nonsense.
It all depends.
No man who knows Jesus is ever truly poor.
No man without Jesus is ever truly rich.
So what shall we say of Steve Jobs, the brilliant co-founder of Apple, the man whose inventions changed the world? As I type these words I have an iPhone 4 in my pocket. A few feet away I have an Apple iPad. Not two feet from me (I am writing this on a plane flying from Dallas to Seoul, South Korea) my son has a MacBook Pro. Millions of people download millions of songs from iTunes. We store our data in the iCloud. We update Facebook and Twitter using Apple technology. All of it stems from the creative genius of Steve Jobs who after his recent death left behind a multi-billion dollar fortune.
Even while confessing my debt to Steve Jobs, let me point out the phrase “left behind.”
He left it all behind.
Steve Jobs left it all behind.
All those Mac computers don’t matter now.
All those iPhones do him no good.
All that money is no longer his.
Steve Jobs has passed from this life where he was revered into another realm where he must answer to the God who made him.
I make no pronouncements on his eternal destiny except to note that in all the praise for his justly-celebrated accomplishments, no one has offered the slightest reason to think that he was a Christian.
Whatever has happened to him and wherever he is, it has nothing to do with his great wealth while he was on the earth.
If he thought he would disappear into nothingness, he was wrong.
If he thought he could achieve Nirvana, he was wrong.
If he thought his life on earth was the only life there is, he was wrong.
His earthly wealth can protect him no more.
So it is for all the rich men of this world. How foolish we are to think that the little bit that we amass in this life matters in eternity. Will the God who made the stars be impressed by a 75-foot yacht? Will he be blown away by a mansion-or two, or three? Will he be impressed by a fleet of BMWs?
Will the God who made the stars be impressed by a 75-foot yacht?
He laughs at the puny pretensions of the high and mighty.
Jesus knows your poverty-and he knows your riches too. He sees your faith lived out in hard times. He notes the prayers you pray through your tears. He hears your desperate cries for help.
Oddly enough, those hated Christians in Smyrna were the richest people in town. Years ago I heard it put this way:
You’ll never know if Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.
When Jesus is all you have, then you will discover that Jesus is all you need.
Most of us have a hard time figuring this out. Because the Christians at Smyrna were so poor, they learned early on that Jesus really is all you need. That’s why Jesus says, “But you are rich!” No man is poor who has learned to depend on Christ alone.
No man is poor who has learned to depend on Christ alone.
In his sermon on this text, Ray Stedman quotes a poem that applies this truth to all of us:
I counted dollars while God counted crosses.
I counted gain while He counted losses.
I counted my worth by the things gained in store,
But he sized me up by the scars that I bore.
I coveted honors, and sought for degrees.
He wept as he counted the hours on my knees.
I never knew till one day by a grave,
How vain are the things that we spend life to save.
I did not yet know, ‘til a Friend from above,
Said, richest is he who is rich in God’s love!
III. Jesus knows your enemies.
“I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (v. 9).
Who are these people who are called a “synagogue of Satan?” This fearful description applies to those Jews in Smyrna who had joined forces with the pagans to accuse the Christians of treason against Rome. In taking sides against the church of Jesus, they were in effect taking sides against the Lord himself.
God does not take lightly those who attack his children.
God does not take lightly those who attack his children.
Because Christians did not worship idols but instead worshiped God who is invisible, they were sometimes considered atheists. Their opponents heard rumors about eating and drinking the body and blood of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper and called them cannibals. Because Christians were despised and marginalized, they seemed like a virus in the body politic, a sort of disease that needed to be removed from Smyrna. The so-called Jews who attacked them were not really Jews at all. They were Jews in name only. The whole affair reminds one of Paul’s description in Romans 2:28-29 that
“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from man, but from God.”
These words would have shocked the Jews in Rome. They ought to shock us as well. Paul is not being anti-Semitic since he was a Jew himself. Yet racial or ethnic identification matters not at all when it comes to salvation.
We should note in passing that religion itself remains the greatest obstacle to the spread of the gospel. Religion blinds a man to his need of God because it leads him to think that he can contribute something to his own salvation. Millions of people have a religion based on superstition. They put their trust in some outward factor as their hope for heaven. Such people will someday be sadly disappointed. Others trust in inherited religion: “Daddy was a deacon. Momma was a Sunday School teacher.” They act as if salvation is inherited like you inherit the color of your eyes. It doesn’t work that way. No one else can believe for you. You have to believe for yourself if you want to go to heaven.
Religion itself remains the greatest obstacle to the spread of the gospel.
Never be surprised when religious people hate you.
They hated Jesus too.
Then they crucified him.
IV. Jesus says, “Do not fear.”
“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” (v. 10).
We find much to instruct us in this verse. First, our Lord has perfect knowledge of all that is about to happen to us. What surprises us does not surprise him. Second, the Lord sometimes allows the devil to attack us severely. How exactly did the devil put some of the believers in jail? No doubt he stirred up the Jews to collaborate with the pagans to incite animosity so that the Christians ended up in jail, having no way to refute the false accusations made against them.
What surprises us does not surprise him.
Third, our sufferings are limited by the Lord. Jesus tells the church that the severe persecution will last for “ten days.” Some of us may think, “That doesn’t sound so bad.” Let’s see how you feel after you have been fired from your job, beaten senseless, your house plundered, your wife abused, and your children physically attacked. Will it seem so small to you then?
Some of you reading my words have been in the furnace of affliction far longer than ten days. For some it is more like ten years. For others it seems like a lifetime.
I freely confess that I cannot explain why some people seem to suffer much more than others. While it is true that “into each life some rain must fall,” some folks seem to have a perpetual monsoon pouring down upon them. After thinking about this for many years, I have concluded that all our speculations are just that—idle speculations that do not help us much at all.
But let us rest our soul in this. We cannot be tempted beyond that which we are able to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). The God who made us knows our limits, and though we be sorely tried, he knows what we can endure and will not ever give us more than we can bear.
If Jesus says you will suffer for ten days, no force on earth can make it last eleven days!
Think of it this way. If Jesus says you will suffer for ten days, no force on earth can make it last eleven days! It won’t end early, but it won’t go long either. The time limit on our trials has been determined by the Lord.
That is why he says, “Fear not.” The Lord knows what he is doing, and he is doing it. He will accomplish his purpose concerning us.
V. Jesus says, “Be faithful.”
“Be faithful, even to the point of 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. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (vv. 10-11).
There is one important fact we must not miss. Jesus never promises to remove the trials of life. He never says to the church at Smyrna, “Just believe in me and everything will get better.”
Jesus was not a Prosperity Gospel preacher. That heresy has infected the church around the world and created a generation of Christians who are materialistic, worldly, and spiritually anemic. Because they have no theology of suffering, they are not ready when suffering comes.
Jesus was not a Prosperity Gospel preacher.
Because they believe in “your best life now,” they have no strength to face the terrible struggles of life.
Jesus never says, “Believe in me and I’ll give you an easy life.”
He says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
No doubt many of the believers in Smyrna paid the ultimate price for their faith. Having followed Jesus in life, they now follow him in death.
It is against that backdrop that we see the importance of Christ’s title for himself in verse 8.
“These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.”
These are the extremes.
The First and the Last.
Death and life.
Jesus is Lord of the extremes.
Jesus is Lord of the extremes. He is there at the beginning, and he is there at the end. Because he conquered death, death itself cannot conquer us. To use John Stott’s phrase, death has become a “trivial episode” for the people of God. I ran across this quote from Max Lucado about what death means to the Christian:
In heaven, we’ll remember the day we died with the same fondness we remember graduation day.
Many contemporary Christians have never heard of a man named Polycarp. The early believers knew all about him because he was one of the first well-known martyrs of the Christian faith. In his youth he was a disciple of the Apostle John. For many years he served as Bishop of the church in Smyrna. During a wave of persecution in AD 155, when a mob demanded his death, Roman officials tried to save his life by offering him repeated chances to deny his faith in Christ. He refused each time. When given one final chance to save his own life, he replied in words that echo across the centuries:
“For 86 years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
As the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, he refused, saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” The fire was lit and Polycarp burned to death. As the flames consumed him, he was heard to pray, “I thank you, O Lord, that you have deemed me worthy this day and this hour to take up the cross of Christ with many witnesses.”
“Where do you get men like this?”
When I read his story, I say to myself, “Where do you get men like this?”
I do know that God has his Polycarps all over the world today. They are the brave men and women who will not bow the knee to Baal, who will not swear allegiance to Caesar, who will not give up their Christian faith, and who will not return to Islam.
They would rather die than surrender what Jesus has given them.
Of such men and women the world is not worthy. Truly, the “second death” cannot hurt men and woman like that. I remember the story of an evangelist who was told he would be killed if he didn’t stop preaching the gospel. “You can’t threaten me with heaven,” he replied.
Death itself has no power over the believer who remains faithful.
We may die-indeed we will die someday!
That’s not the question.
Will we be faithful no matter what?
Few of us will be called upon to do what Polycarp did. For most of us the sufferings we endure will be less dramatic, the pressures more subtle, the temptations harder to spot. But the call from Jesus remains the same.
Heaven is waiting for us. Death may come but it cannot take from us what God has given us. The world gives fame, and the world takes it away. So be it. We are rich today and poor tomorrow. We have a job and then we don’t. We are healthy and then cancer strikes. We have a happy family and then it seems to fall apart. Our friends say they love us and then they disappear.
Heaven is just around the corner.
To those who stand strong in the midst of trials, the best is yet to come. We will receive the “crown of life” and reign with Jesus forever. The “second death” in hell cannot touch us at all.
Be encouraged, child of God. Buckle up your chinstrap and get back in the game. Don’t run from the troubles of life. You are richer than you think.
And heaven is just around the corner. Amen.