Revelation 2:8-11 – Spiritual Endurance

The remains of ancient Smyrna in Izmir, Turkey

This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Smyrna:

I am the first and the last. I died, but now I am alive! Listen to what I say.

I know how much you suffer and how poor you are, but you are rich. I also know the cruel things being said about you by people who claim to be Jews. But they are not really Jews. They are a group that belongs to Satan.

Don’t worry about what you will suffer. The devil will throw some of you into jail, and you will be tested and made to suffer for ten days. But if you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life.

If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever wins the victory will not be hurt by the second death. (Contemporary English Version)

Jesus not only speaks in the four Gospels of the New Testament; Christ also speaks in the final biblical book of Revelation to seven different churches.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Jesus addresses the church at Smyrna – a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world, on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea (present day Turkey). 

Jesus was letting the believers in Smyrna know they were about to experience severe persecution. However, they need not be fearful and can remain faithful because their Lord knows all about suffering. 

The church’s perseverance under such trouble would result in the crown of life, given to them by Jesus himself. Words coming directly from their Lord and Savior must surely have been an encouragement to the believers as they underwent extreme difficulty.

The congregation at Smyrna was facing imprisonment and, for some, even death for their faith. The heart of the message by Jesus is to remain faithful. 

The seven churches of Revelation which Jesus addressed

There will always be those who are faint of heart with weak faith, giving up when the going gets tough. Yet, persecution and hardship have a way of purging the soul, as well as the church, of its dross. Suffering is inevitable; how we handle adversity when it comes is completely under our own control.

Few of us will likely never face a hardship that could result in martyrdom. Knowing there are brothers and sisters in the faith throughout the world who do face daily hardship for devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light.

The daily irritations and trials that God puts in our way to refine us and shape our faith certainly seem small compared to imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet, no matter who we are and where we are located on this earth – whether facing uncommon hardship or banal difficulty – the afflictions of both body and soul come to us as opportunities to lean into faith and love Jesus to the end.

Jesus is not looking for perfect people – just faithful followers willing to endure suffering with the truth that our Lord stands with us. 

Whatever our current circumstances may be, Jesus offers us his perspective on it. He knows precisely what is going on and understands the spiritual resources you and I possess for each adverse situation we encounter.

In fact, few of us really discern the largess of internal resources within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personhood God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born.

Even though it seems, at times, we lack the strength, wisdom, and courage for what is ahead – Jesus has supreme confidence in us to maintain faith and endure through our afflictions.

Life is not a sprint; life is a marathon. And to finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run – step by step, stride by stride – with boldness, despite fear of the unknown future around the bend.

Spiritual endurance requires becoming comfortable with risk, vulnerability, accountability, and the steadfast love which is both received and given.

Perhaps, most of all, it requires keeping our heads up and running toward the promise of reward at the finish. The crown of life is an image of both congratulation and celebration of a race well-run and the enjoyment of unending fellowship with our Lord for whom we have endured so much.

After all is said and done, and the end of the age has occurred, we will be able to look back in hindsight and see that it was really Jesus who all along was fortifying us to keep standing and keep going. Christ is so vested in us that he continually ensures our ultimate victory through a constant presence of help and encouragement. The heritage of both the Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.”

John Calvin (1509-1564)

“I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, CEB)

May the grace of Jesus sustain you; the love of God surround you; and the encouragement of the Spirit surprise you, today and every day. Amen.

Grant, O God, That we may never lose the way through our self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that we may never abandon the struggle, but that we may endure to the end, and so be saved; that we may never drop out of the race, but that we may ever press forward to the goal of our high calling; that we may never choose the cheap and passing things, and let go the precious things that last forever; that we may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that we may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So keep us and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year

When Will We Engage Our Ministry?

Welcome, friends!

Acts 1:1-11 contains the final words of Christ on this earth. Jesus gave his followers a mandate, not to sit idly and wait for his return, but to embody their identity as witnesses to what they have seen and heard for a world in need of God’s deliverance and love. Click the videos below, and let us embrace our purpose and mission as the people of God….

Pastor Tim Ehrhardt, Acts 1:8

God of hope and courage, you call each of us to bear witness to your abundant love in a frightened world. All around us are signs the world is struggling and the future is unclear. Strengthen our confidence in your unfailing grace and grant us the courage to move onward even when we cannot see the way, knowing that you will guide our every step. Amen.

Acts 7:54-8:1 – Humility and Hubris

A 10th century depiction of Stephen’s martyrdom

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of their killing him.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (New International Version)

Although I am a trained in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) I believe that most insights come from making simple observations about the text. So, I want to point out: Stephen was not martyred by the Romans, a religiously pagan group, or Gentile people; he was martyred by those of his own ethnicity, by the people of God.

They weren’t simply unhappy with Stephen. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) were incensed with him, so mad that they were grinding their teeth at him. The council truly believed Stephen was a blasphemer of God, that what he was saying was so subversive and religiously radical, they could stone him to death with a clear conscience, as if it were upholding God and God’s Law.

The result was not only the death of a humble man; it also sparked an intense persecution against the church which caused a new Christian diaspora. Many believers in Jesus now found themselves as Christian refugees trying to eke out a living and worshiping Christ in foreign places.

I wish I could say the greatest opposition I’ve ever experienced as a Christian came from non-Christians who simply misunderstood and misinterpreted me. However, my most hurtful wounds have come from the hands of church folk, believing they were acting on God’s behalf by exacting an emotional martyrdom upon me with the stones of gossip, slander, backbiting, blame-shifting, and outright lying.

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.

Whenever I encounter persons who no longer attend church and have no intention of ever returning to any local congregation, I get it. I understand. I’ve been there. Yet, although the church is sometimes like a woman of disrepute, I still love her, and will do whatever I can to edify her and not repay evil with evil.

Stoning a believer, either actually with physical rocks or virtually with metaphorical stones, is akin to persecuting Jesus himself. That’s because Christ so closely identifies with his people that it is as if he is a head, and his followers are a body – joined together in a vital union.

So, when Christ’s Body is subjected to hermeneutical hubris in which one group of people insists there is only one way to interpret Scripture, and then uses it’s authority and structures of power to force compliance on another group, the result is persecution.

And that is precisely why Christians can abuse other Christians.

Rather than discerning that all Christians belong to God, one narrow-minded and small-hearted group excludes all other groups who disagree with them as blaspheming the name of Christ.

Insisting, for example, that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority which exists with the Bible. I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say. 

What I am stating is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, as well as the early church fathers (which is one reason I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).

Far too often churches stick to a particular interpretation because they believe they are keeping biblical fidelity. This is many times born of a fear that Christendom will be lost, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture itself never calls them to fight.

The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word.

Even if the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day intended on upholding the holiness of their God and the rightness of their cause, the impact it had on the church was death and diaspora.

Unfortunately, throughout Christian history, the tables have too often turned with Christians persecuting Jews. I myself would like to avoid being the persecutor. If I kill anything, may it be putting to death my own sin.

Gracious God, as your Son humbled himself on this earth, so may your church walk continually in such humility that believers everywhere work together in unity for the sake of gospel of grace as a blessing to the world in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.