Book Of Hope – Study Series Chapter -3

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May the Almighty God bless you all as promised. We hope   you have started reading  the  Book of Revelation with all seriousness. For the benefit of  those who have not yet done it,  let us start with the promise of Jesus Christ. ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is  near’ ( Rev 1:3).

Today we are studying about the church in Smyrna. It was located  near the  modern day city of  Izmir in Turkey.  Historians say that a  human  settlement started there around the third millennium BC, and that  gradually it became a powerful city-state, to the extent that it  competed with Ephesus and  Pergamum over the title of the ‘First  Roman city in Asia’. Smyrna fell to the Lydian kingdom in the seventh century BC and was later  restored  at the orders of  Alexander the Great.  By the late 19th century, Greeks were in majority in Smyrna‚Äôs population and it was  under the  occupation of  Greece. But in 1922 the Turkish army captured  Smyrna, ending the Greco-Turkish War. During this period  the Greek and Armenian quarters of Smyrna  were intentionally set on fire which led to an exodus of its inhabitants thereby changing its demographics for  ever. 

Almost all  Bible commentaries   mention  the church is Smyrna as a ‘persecuted church’ and it is not without reason. Smyrna was among those places that witnessed the  martyrdom  of  thousands of  Christians in the early centuries.  Conservative estimates put the number of men and women who sacrificed their life for Christ  in  different provinces of the Roman  empire  at five million,  and a large portion of it was   contributed by  cities and provinces in the Asia Minor (present day Turkey). During those  days  every  citizen had to  proclaim  in public that  ‘Caesar is God’. Christians would not say it; instead they would proclaim  loudly and proudly; “Jesus Christ is God’. This  would mean sure death, only the  means  to vary.  Some were burnt at the  stake, some were thrown to the lions, some were cut into two,  some were put in boiling oil. But nothing could shake their faith in  Jesus Christ.

Polycarp, one of the  last surviving disciples of  John the Evangelist at that  time, was the   bishop of Smyrna. Like his flock, he was  also  put to death  for his faith in   Jesus Christ.  Asked to   deny  Christ for saving his  life, Polycarp replied;  “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”  His final words were: “I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.” Polycarp was burned at the stake  for refusing to offer incense for the Roman emperor. When the fire  failed to  consume him, the soldiers pierced  him with a spear.

Smyrnaeans followed their bishop in  faith. They  embraced death of the  most  cruel  type, yet  did not deny their Saviour.  Their  hope  was  not to  sustain this indefinite life, but to earn eternal life  after death. It is not surprising   that when writing to  such a  church with  deep faith in the eternal life  promised by him, Jesus introduces himself as ‘the first and the  last. who was dead and came to life’ (Rev 2:8). When Jesus says that  he is the first and the last,  it is a message of great hope to a  church  passing through untold persecutions.  When  he says that he was  dead but  again came to life, Jesus is  re- assuring  the Smyrnaeans that  like Polycarp they also should not be afraid of death. Because their Saviour has  already conquered the last  enemy called death.

Jesus is all praise  for the  Church in Smyrna. There is no mention of anything negative. How come it that a   church is coming out in  flying colors, in the  scorecard of Jesus?  The reason is simple.  It was an afflicted church. It was  a poor church. It was a church going through persecution. ‘I know  your affliction and your poverty, even though  you are rich. I know the slander  on the part 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. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison  so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction’ ( Rev 2:9-10). 

No word of consolation, no sugar coating. Jesus is telling the  church in Smyrna that  bitter days  are awaiting them.  They are  going to be  persecuted. They are  going to be  tested.  Some of them will be  imprisoned. Those who are  Jews  in name only   will attack them with  slander.  Why did Jesus  use these   seemingly harsh and curt words for  them? Because Jesus didn’t want to keep them in  the dark  about  their future  but wanted to strengthen them in  faith. The best way to do so is to warn them about  the risks of proclaiming  ‘Christ  crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and  foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cori.1:23). Indeed, the Jews and Gentiles alike  persecuted  the church in Smyrna. The Greek  could not  understand  the ‘folly’  of a large number of Christians  calling a  condemned person  their  god. It is understandable, because they didn’t know  Scripture.   They didn’t know the prophecies. They  needed a god and  Caesar came in handy and they had no issue in  bowing before him as  another god. 

But the Jews! They  had the Scripture. They had their prophets. They were  expecting their saviour. Yet, when he came, they failed to recognise him. It does not mean that  all the Jews were against Jesus. But  there were some among them who  were Jews in name only. In fact they were  not Jews but  belonged to the army of the devil, they were members of the synagogue of Satan.  We  see them  attacking Jesus at  every possible opportunity. We see them behind Judas. We see them behind Pilate’s  reluctant judgement and we see them again with  stones in their  hands to kill  Stephen.

When we think of  persecution of Christians, there is something  that  should not be  missed. The  persecution of  Christians at all times comes from two different sources. First is  from a political system, that  could not understand who Jesus is  and how and why he died for us. Second is from pseudo- believers, our own brothers and  sisters, who claim to share our  faith and  tradition. Jesus said that  our own people will be against us  when  we start  proclaiming the true gospel.  How painful is it to be betrayed  by our own people! Jesus  tasted the bitterness of being   betrayed by   his own disciple.  David wrote: ‘It is not enemies who taunt me – I could bear that; It is not adversaries who deal insolently with  me –  I could hide from them. But it is you my equal,  my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of  God with the throng’ (Ps  55:12-14).

Cut and paste to our times. Who are persecuting  Christians? Our  instinct will be  to  blame Islamic terrorists or communist  regimes or   religious bigots. True, they persecute the  Church in whatever way they can. But at another level, a subtle attack against the very basic tenets of Christianity is being  orchestrated and executed  by those who are Christians in  name only. In fact they are not Christians. Their true address is that of  the synagogue of  Satan.  When some one  bearing a  Christian name, and flaunting    a rosary in his  hand  encourage the  murder of  millions upon millions of innocent  babies, we cannot bear that nor  can we  hide from them.  When Christian leaders feign ignorance about the massive  genocide  of  Christians taking  place at various places, but at the same time   seems  overconcerned about  stray incidents of violence against some other communities, we should understand that it is  persecution from our  own brethren. When people who are Christian in name only make legislations  directly opposing  what Jesus taught, understand that  it is persecution from  our own people.  In the coming days, this persecution is going to aggravate. David wrote it not for himself as a fact, nor for  Jesus as a prophecy, but for us  too as a warning.  Always bear in mind that ‘ it is not enemies who taunt us; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with us’.

Paul tells us who a real Jew is. ‘ For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision  something external and  physical. Rather a person is  a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is  a matter of the heart- it is spiritual and not literal’ (Rom 2: 28-29). Now replace  ‘Jew’  with  ‘Christian’ and  ‘circumcision’ with  ‘faith’. You will get  an idea about   the  risks of living a  sheep’s life among wolves.

The Bible warns us that a time is coming when  the world will be divided into  two camps. One for Christ and the other against Christ. It will be a time when the political system that opposes  Christ joins hands with a religious system that  publicly  proclaims  Christ but  surreptitiously  works against everything  he said. When we see open rebellion against the perennial teachings of  the Church coming from within the  hierarchy, we  should understand that  the synagogue of Satan   is going full steam. When we  see many Christian denominations act hand in glove with  international organisations who promote every kind of abomination, we know that  the fusion between a religious system and a  political system, both anti-christian  to the core,  is  developing. 

Jesus testifies that the church in Smyrna was poor.  It is  easy for  the poor to welcome the gospel. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that it is very difficult for the rich to  enter the kingdom of heaven. We should be alarmed  at a false teaching doing the rounds in the name of  ‘prosperity gospel’.  God’s purpose in sending the  good news to us  is not  to give us prosperity. If any one  thinks so, the reason is that  ‘the god of this world has blinded the minds of the  unbelievers, to keep them from  seeing the light of the gospel of the  glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ ( 2 Cor.4:4).

Yes, we look forward to  a happy life, blessed in all aspects when  our Lord  returns. The  danger  of prosperity gospel is that  those who  preach it, claim that this   happiness and glory can be  achieved in our worldly life. Now read from the Catechism of  the Catholic Church: ‘The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment’ ( CCC 676). It is  sheer foolishness to offer right now in time, and  right here in history, what  Jesus promised to give beyond time  and  beyond history through the eschatological  judgement.

This kind of   false teaching ignores the  theology of suffering. But  Jesus said that  there are  no  shortcuts to heaven and one has to carry  his cross. Prosperity gospel cannot prepare, and does not want to prepare the  church for  facing   difficult times, whereas the true gospel is a call to be in  constant  readiness to  follow  Jesus to  Calvary.

When Jesus says that  for ten days Smyrnaeans will have affliction, he was warning  about the  ten waves of persecution that was to take place during the reign of  anti-christian  Roman emperors starting from  Nero.  The message that  they are going to be  afflicted  made them bold.  They  withstood the  persecution with resilience and hope.

Do we ever hear anybody preaching this gospel of  affliction nowadays? More pertinent, do we  want to  hear our   priests or bishops preaching  that  we are going to be persecuted? It is very easy to preach that  God is  going to bless us, that the evil one will not touch us, that the  Risen Lord will   save us from  all our  problems, that our  diseases will be healed, that  God wants His children to live like princes  and so on. But when  somebody reminds us that   Christian life   is not complete without suffering or that  the only thing guaranteed to a Christian in this world is  persecution,  we find  it difficult to  accept.  But there  is no other way.  Suffering and  persecution  are our permanent companions and they will be  with us   all through life till the moment of death.  Do not  forget that there is a kind of life that  leads to  death, and a kind of death that leads to life.  If we live for ourselves we will certainly die. If we  die for Christ we will certainly live forever.

God is  allowing  sufferings to us for  various reasons. It can be a chastisement. It can be   an instrument of purification. God wants us to utilise the  times of adversity  to take our  eyes from this world and  fix them for eternity.  Most important, it is to impart us the knowledge that  God will be with us in  every adversity.  Moses and  six hundred thousand Israelites will  testify that  God was with them  while crossing the Red Sea.  Daniel will testify that a lion’s den with   God’s presence was  more  comfortable   than the royal palace  of  a godless ruler. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego will testify that  they   never wanted to  come out of the blazing furnace,  because God was with them. The Church in Smyrna  will testify that ‘ the sufferings of this present time are not worth  comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us'( Rom 8:18). Smyrna is an invitation to  share this  hope  in eternal glory.

Jesus wanted the  church in Smyrna to be faithful until death and  promised a reward for  their perseverance. ‘Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life’ (Rev 2:10). Jesus who has conquered death has every right to promise us also the  crown of life. He is the only person who can give us the  crown of life. If we persevere in  the battle and conquer the devil we need not fear the second death. ‘Whoever conquers will not be  harmed by the second death’ (Rev.2:11).

Let us bring to  mind the passion of our Lord and  pray for the  strength to  withstand every kind of persecution. May our churches imitate the   church in Smyrna in these days, when a hostile political system joins hands with an apostate  religious system in attacking the true believers, ‘those who keep the  commandments of  God and hold the testimony of  Jesus’ ( Rev 12:17).

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