Why do people follow the so-called godmen/women? Because they promise prosperity in the here and now.
Jesus was different. While they were following him, he told his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). He told them:
- There’s nothing for yourself in following me
- There will only be a cross to carry daily.
And on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus told them, “In the world you will have tribulation; be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, KJV). That is, he was telling them that their heritage from him was severe trouble and sorrow. It was almost as if the Lord was discouraging people from following him. Yes, there was that. They were cautioned about following him. He told them that they needed to “count the cost” of following him (Luke 16:25–33).
After the Lord had returned to heaven, he still stayed in touch with his people (Book of Revelation). In the matter of how the church is to face and handle persecution, our Lord wrote to the church located in the city of Smyrna (modern Izmir) (Rev 2:8–11).
The city was a rival to Ephesus and called the “ornament of Asia”. It had a safe harbour. Around 600 BC it was ruined by war and was rebuilt as a planned city with broad, straight streets. It was considered first in loyalty to Rome. In 195 BC it had a temple to goddess Roma, but in AD 26 it won the competition to build a temple to Caesar Tiberius.
Jesus is Lord
The first thing that Jesus did was to identify himself as the “the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (v. 8). By this, he was announcing that he was unlike earthly Caesars, who were there only for a period. Jesus had died, but he had returned to life—never to die again.
Having declared his authority and power over life and death, the Lord told the church that he knew about their great troubles and sufferings, which were severe. Jesus was not a god or a caesar who didn’t know or care about what happened to ordinary, poor people. There is an old Negro spiritual that captures this well:
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
The song originated during the period of slavery, but it is amazing that in the midst of all that abuse, torture and suffering, they saw glory—the glory of the Lord.
The troubles and sufferings the Lord was talking about were not those that come in the ordinary course of life. Ordinary troubles come to one and all because of the conditions of life in the fallen world. We have a tendency to identify our commonplace troubles as our “crosses”. For instance, we think of illnesses as crosses. However, instead of taking up the crosses, we seek to be cured.
Then there are people who try to minimise the gravity of their sins, by referring to them as their crosses. That is what a man said about his bad temper. His pastor responded, “Man, that’s not your cross. It is your wife’s cross.” If sins are crosses at all, they are crosses to the people assaulted by our abuse and wickedness. For ourselves, they are plainly sins to be repented of, and overcome by, the grace of our Lord.
The cross, according to Jesus, is what the world confers on you for being a follower of Christ, the Crucified One. It comes to us “for Jesus’ sake” (Matt 5:10–12). That is why Paul wrote, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil 1:29). Being a Christian is not about only believing in Christ. It is a “given” that we are to suffer for his sake.
Peter once protested the Lord going to the cross, because he knew that Lord would right away say that there would be a cross in the life of his followers. And, he was right, because that is exactly the sequence of what happened (Matt 16:21–24). That same Peter wrote:
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of Glory and of God rests on you…However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name (1 Pet 4:12–16).”
Deprived and Poor
Jesus told the church at Smyrna that he knew of their poverty. In Greek there are two words to describe penury. Penia is when someone doesn’t have enough to live well: there are no extras, no luxuries. It is a hand-to-mouth existence. Jesus used the second word ptochos, which describes extreme poverty—when someone has nothing at all.
This was no ordinary poverty. It was deprivation as a consequence of persecution. At that time, craftsmen and tradesmen worked in guilds (unions). A Christian didn’t belong in guilds because they were dedicated to pagan gods. The Lord revealed that there would come a time when the Antichrist would impose restrictions on people’s livelihood (Rev 13:16-17).
If following Jesus cost you your livelihood, what will you do? For some years, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have been pushing for the compulsory singing of Vande Mataram. The first line of the fifth verse says,
Tvaṃ hi Durgā daśapraharanadhārinī
(For thou art Durga holding her ten weapons of war)
Will you manifest the courage of your convictions to refuse to fall in line with the demands of the RSS?
That patriotism is not compromised by refusing to sing Vande Mataram is evident from Rabindranath Tagore’s letter to Subhash Chandra Bose (1937), written back in the day when nationalism was an even bigger issue because of the fight against British imperialism:
“The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course, Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’. This year many of the special Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram – proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate.”
Not Poor, But Rich
Though the Lord told the church that he knew about their severe poverty, he said that they were rich. On the other hand, he told the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’” (3:17).
The question is—when is a Christian rich? Jesus said that to be rich we must have treasure in heaven. What we gather on earth is not saved for eternity. If we cannot take it with us, we will be deprived and poor in the end. Not only so, even in this life earthly riches do not afford security because they can be taken from us and we will be deprived:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:19–21).”
Paul warned the church:
“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs… Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:9-10, 17–19).”
The Lord told the church that people would be subjected to character assassination. This is a favourite weapon in the hands of persecutors even today. At that time, Christians were accused of cannibalism (because they drank ‘blood’ at the Lord’s Supper), orgies (because their fellowship meals were called agape (love) feasts), traitors (because they refused to bow to Caesar) and atheists (because they had no idols in their places of worship). Can’t you see that these are accusations that can be levelled against us even today and they would stick if we are faithful in keeping the tenets and practices of our faith?
Sadly, those spearheading the attacks were Jews. Jesus called them the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9). Whenever persecution has risen, often those who are supposed to be religious, buy favours and benefits by turning against those whom they share elements of faith with. It happened during the Nazi regime under Hitler. It happened in Communist Russia, when Christians betrayed fellow Christians for whatever benefits they could get from the ungodly powerful.
So-called Christians were the ones whom Paul called “enemies of the cross” (Phil 3:18). They were people whose “god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things” (v.19). On the other hand, believers were people whose “citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (vv. 20–21).
Faithfulness unto Death
The war is not against “flesh and blood” but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). The religious Jews who were working against Christians were acting on behalf of Satan. The Devil was behind the attacks (Rev 2:10). The persecution was imminent. It would be an outbreak—sudden. That is how it was and still is.
However, the Lord always remains in control. He will not allow persecution to exceed his limits. It will only be for a period of time. He will shorten the time (Matt 24:22).
In the face of the coming persecution, the Lord counsels, “Don’t be afraid…Be faithful…” (Rev 2:10). We do not have to fear those who can only attack the body and not our spiritual state and eternal destiny (Matt 10:28–31).
Faithfulness must be “unto death”—up to the point of death, ready to die (Rev 2:10). But the promise was that God will protect us. I really love the story of the three young men who faced Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath and threats. They said, “We know that God can deliver us. But even if he will not, we will not give in to your ungodly demands” (Dan 3:16–18). Faithfulness unto death! Come what may, we belong to God.
As John Stott said, “Smyrna was a suffering church because it was an uncompromising church.”
The Lord Rewards
There would be the crown of life. Smyrna was famous for Olympia (games) and the prizes were laurel crowns, wreaths of leaves. They wouldn’t last. What the Lord offers is for life—for life beyond this life. You will win the race. You will win the prize (Rev 2:10).
There will be no second death to face (Rev 20:14; 21:8, 27; 22:15). The first death we suffer is physical. It is simply the end of life on earth. The second death is spiritual. It is separation from God. All those who suffer the second death will be left with nothing but a sense of desolation—for all eternity. No way to live.