Sunday, 11 January 2009

Dear Saints - Be Faithful

Do not Fear – Be Faithful (Revelation 2:8-11)

If ever there was a spiritual battleground it was surely Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It was here, at Antioch Pisidia, that disciples were called Christians first (Acts 11:26); here that the first largely Gentile local church was located; from here Paul’s three missionary journey’s were launched (Acts 13:1-4;15:40;18:23) after his resolve to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46).

Smyrna (modern Ismir) competed with Ephesus for the title First city of Asia. It was a faithful ally of Rome before Rome was recognised in the region and one of the first cities to worship the Roman emperor and won the honour of erecting a temple to him during the reign of Tiberius. Conflict between the demands of Christ and those of the state was inevitable and persecution and martyrdom were daily threats. The Lord says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty”. “Afflictions” here is extreme and means a crushing burden; poverty means more than simply living on basics, it means extreme poverty. “Yet you are rich!”

It was in Smyrna that the aged and renowned Polycarp was bishop some years later in the second century and from here that he suffered martyrdom in the arena. The last link with the Apostolic Age (through his association with the apostle John) he was even respected by pagans who described him as “the Father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, teaching men not to sacrifice or worship!” His reputation as an uncompromising defender of the faith is illustrated by an encounter he had in Rome with the heretic Marcion who rejected much of the Bible and denied the incarnation. “Do you recognise me?” asked Marcion. “I do recognise you – the first born of Satan!” replied Polycarp.

Such a frank and resolute response to error in such a place as Smyrna brings its rewards and in 156 AD, at the age of 86, Polycarp was dragged into the arena and urged by the proconsul to “Swear by the divinity of Caesar; repent, and say ‘Away with the atheists’ (meaning Christians)” Polycarp waved his hands towards the pagan crowd baying for his blood and repeated, “Away with the atheists!” The proconsul pleaded with him, “Take the oath and I will let you go; revile Christ”, to which the bishop replied, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong – how can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”

The Lord refers to “Those who say they are Jews and are not, they are a synagogue of Satan”. At the martyrdom of Polycarp all those years after this letter was written such people were still very busy as, despite the fact that it was the Sabbath, they scurried around searching out wood to build the pyre on which they were eager to see Polycarp die. Polycarp knew that, though he was poor in the things of this world yet he was rich in the things of God.

Do we see our world in the same way? Does our world reflect the world in which the saints of Smyrna faced such extreme persecution and privation? Do we count the crown of life as worth the giving up of anything in this world?

Emperor worship has its modern equivalent in the slavish devotion paid to liberal secularism. This is the new Rome and we are all expected to concede that the modern secular state reigns supreme, all religions are of equal value and all subject to secular thinking. By all means worship who you will but all must worship the modern state.

Marcion has his equals today in those who deny the inerrant nature of Scripture and the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.

“Those who say they are Jews” can be seen in those liberal elements in the church who insist they are Christians but bend with every wind of doctrine and accommodate their beliefs to the prevailing philosophies around them. Anyone who disagrees is dubbed ‘phobic’ in one way or another and branded a dangerous and reactionary element to be watched and controlled – even imprisoned and eradicated in some states. The word of the Lord to us, as it was to the church in Smyrna, is:

“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. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life”

If difficult times come, if persecution threatens, we need not fear if we are faithful. It will end and a crown of life awaits those who, like Polycarp, like the believers in Smyrna to whom John wrote, look to a God who knows how we struggle for the truth and what temptations beset us on every side in the militantly secular world in which we live. “He who has an ear, let him hear” writes John. Are we listening?

Previous Posts in this Series:
A Message of Hope
Remember Your First Love

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