Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Episode Resources

Websites to learn about the persecuted church:

Gospel for Asia
Voice of the Martyrs

Leslie Basham: Here’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: The only way to avoid suffering for your faith is to compromise your faith: to fear man rather than God, to water down the message, to lower our standards. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why we haven’t seen more true persecution in this country because we have so diluted the gospel message and so watered down the standards of God’s holiness that we’re not an affront to anybody.

Leslie Basham: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of True Woman 201, for Monday, August 28, 2017.

Jesus dictated seven letters to seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation. You’ll find the letters to be intriguing and practical as Nancy teaches through them. She'll do that in several series here on Revive Our Hearts through the fall. Today she'll wrap up a series on the letter to the church at Smyrna.

Nancy: In the last session I told you the story about the martyrdom of Polycarp who was the bishop of Smyrna and was martyred for his faith in Christ, burned at the stake in about 156 AD. He would have been a member of the church of Smyrna perhaps at the time when Revelation was written sixty years earlier. He would have been encouraged with the words to hold fast to his faith for the sake of Christ.

The reason we know so much about that story is we still have today an account that was written in the first century. You can find it on the Internet. It’s called “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” You can actually read the details of that story.

The account draws to a close with these words:

Having by his endurance overcome the unrighteous ruler in the conflict and so received the crown of immortality, he rejoices in company with the Apostles and all righteous men, and glorifies the Almighty God and Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the savior of our souls.1

We don’t know who the author was of this account. But whoever it was that was writing this story knew that when Polycarp was burned at the stake that was not the end of his story. He reminded us that by his endurance, Polycarp overcame Satan, the unrighteous ruler, in the conflict, and he received the crown of immortality—life that can never end.

Polycarp is today in heaven rejoicing in the company and fellowship with the apostles, with those righteous ones who’ve gone before us. He is glorifying God the Father and he’s blessing Jesus Christ who is the Savior of our souls. First he endured, and now he is enjoying the crown of life.

And so we come to the prize as we look at this letter to the church in Smyrna. Let me read again the letter in Revelation chapter 2 beginning in verse 8.

To the angel at the church in Smyrna write, "The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 'I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander 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. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.

Be faithful unto 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. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death’” (Rev. 2:8–11).

Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.” This letter was not just for some Christians living thousands of years ago. This is a letter that the spirit is speaking to the churches today. He’s speaking to us.

Maybe you’re facing tribulations. Maybe you’re being tested in some way. This message is for you today.

If you’re not experiencing tribulations or suffering or testing in some form, you can be assured that at some point in the future you will. So this message is for you as well.

And what’s the message He’s speaking?

  • Don’t be afraid.
  • Be faithful to Christ.
  • For those who are faithful all the way to the finish line, there will be a prize.

“Be faithful,” he says, “to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” What is the crown of life? It’s eternal life! It’s heaven. It’s life that cannot end. No more death. It’s the same thing as the tree of life that we read about in the letter to the church in Ephesus.

“To the one who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God” (2:7).  It’s eternal, unending life in the presence of God.

And what’s the promise? After death comes what? Life. If we’ve been faithful to Christ to the point of death then there will be the crown of life after that.

The word that’s translated crown in this passage, the crown of life, is the Greek word stephanos. It’s a victor’s crown. It’s to be distinguished from another word for crown that means a royal crown. This is not a royal crown. This is a victor’s crown, stephanos.

It was used in several different ways. Sometimes it could be a festal crown that was worn at weddings and other celebrations. Sometimes it was a token of honor for faithful public service. You have served your country well. You’ll get this crown, this stephanos.

Sometimes the stephanos, the crown, was a symbol of triumph at games or competitions. The city of Smyrna was a big participant in sporting events and games in the Roman Empire. The athletes would train, and then they would exert themselves in the race. If they persevered, if they didn’t drop out, if they made it to the finish line they would be crowned with a stephanos, a crown, a laurel, a wreath. They were victors.

Interestingly—and this just occurred to me in the last several hours before coming to teach this session—the first Christian martyr was named . . . what? Stephen, the Greek word stephanos. You read about him in Acts 7.

We see that he was thrown out of the city. He was stoned by an angry, hostile mob. And then verses 59–60 of Acts 7 tells us,

As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

What does that mean? He died. End of story, right? Well, it’s the end of what’s accounted in the Scripture, but it’s not the end of the story. What happened when he fell down dead on the ground? He had made it to the finish line.

So what happened next? Stephanos, Stephen, the victor, received the stephanos, the crown of life.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the [stephanos the] crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:12).

God’s promises to the suffering church in Smyrna: “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Who made that promise? It was made by the One who died and came to life, Jesus who Himself had been steadfast and faithful to all the will of God to the point of death. He humbled Himself and became obedient. How far? To the point of death [see Phil. 2:8].

He stood the test. He loved God. All the way to the finish line He waved that white flag of surrender and He said, “Yes, Lord, I will do Your will even though it cost me my life.” Christ died, but that wasn’t the end. He came to life. He was raised with power and with glory.

So how is the suffering church to endure, and how are we to endure through times of suffering and hardship? Remember Christ.

  • He knows our tribulation.
  • He knows our poverty.
  • He knows the slander.
  • He knows the things that press in on us.
  • He’s been there.
  • He has been faithful to all the will of God.
  • He was faithful to death.
  • He persevered.
  • He overcame and now He reigns in heaven seated at the right hand of God the Almighty.

And so Hebrews 2 tells us, “We see him [Jesus] who for a little while was made lower than the angels.” And how do we see Him? “Crowned [stephanos] with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (v. 9).

You see, we want the crown without the cross, but there’s no crown without the cross. There’s no eternal life without death to self, and if God should require it, even the laying down of our lives.

We see Christ. We see Him crowned with glory and honor, stephanos. "Crown Him with many crowns; the Lamb upon His throne." Who was the Lamb? The One who was slain and by His blood has redeemed people to God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

We see Him exalted. We see Him, the Lamb that was slain now the Lion of the tribe of Judah crowned and seated upon the throne, the stephanos one, the one who has the crown of life.

And how do we persevere in our race today? By keeping our eyes on Jesus, looking to Christ the Author and the Finisher of our faith [see Heb. 12:2].

When those who have persevered and suffered for their faith get to the finish line, He will be there to meet them—the Victor welcoming the victors, the Overcomer welcoming the overcomers. And to each He will give a stephanos, the crown of life. Jesus says that if you remain faithful all the way to the finish line, you will receive the crown of life.

Then there’s a second prize. He says, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (2:11).

Those who conquer, those who overcome, those who are faithful all the way to the finish line may go through the first death. The first death is the physical death. They can burn the body. They can impale it; they can shoot it. They can kill the body. They can take the body. You may go through the first death and many have for their faith. But the one who is faithful all the way to the finish line will not experience the second death.

What is the second death? The second death is talked about in Revelation chapter 20 and chapter 21. It’s Hell. It’s eternal death in the lake of fire. It’s the ultimate judgment of God on those who reject Christ as Savior and Lord.

Those who persecute the faithful ones will perish in that final judgment. They will pass from death to death. But Christ has taken the sting of death. He has taken that second death, Hell, that eternal condemnation and damnation in the lake of fire. He has taken that death for those who belong to Him.

Those who overcome, those who conquer, those who prove the genuineness of their faith by persevering all the way to physical death will pass from that death to eternal life. They will never be hurt by the second death, by Hell, by God’s eternal judgment.

So for those who deny Christ here on earth they may save their life on earth, but they will perish eternally. On the other hand, those who are faithful to Christ may die here on earth, but they will live forever.

And so as we wrap us this letter to the church of Smyrna let me just share with you some thoughts that have been on my heart about making all this personal. What does this have to do with us? How can we live this out? Just a few reflections that have been on my heart.

The words of Jesus to the suffering church in Smyrna are words of comfort to the persecuted church and suffering believers in our day. This passage should give us a burden to pray for them, to have a heart for the persecuted church.

In the letter to Hebrews we’re reminded, “Remember those who are in prison as though bound with them” (13:3, paraphrased). The likelihood there was that it was speaking of those who were being bound for their faith, those who were awaiting execution.

There are those brothers and sisters around the world today. We cannot go through our ordinary daily lives. In fact, I have to tell you studying for this series I have felt like such a wimp. The things that break me down, get me upset, trouble me, they’ve taken a whole different light and significance in light of what believers have suffered and in many cases are suffering today.

We cannot go through our lives just being self-centered and self-focused and forgetting that we have brothers and sisters in Christ around this world who today are facing the supreme test of suffering and being willing to lay down their lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

We ought to be praying for them.

  • We ought to be praying that God will give them courage and faith.
  • We should be praying for Satan to be bound and the gospel to be furthered.

But for those who will suffer—and Jesus says in the book of Revelation that there is a number of martyrs. There is a number to be fulfilled and some of those are fulfilling that today.

  • We need to pray that God will keep them from fear and provide them the grace to be faithful all the way to the finish line.

I’d encourage you to get informed about the persecuted church around the world. I’ve referenced in this series a couple of different ministries where you can learn more about that. Voice of the Martyrs is a ministry that was started by Richard Wurmbrand who was tortured for his faith in Romania in prisons for years. He’s now with the Lord. But that ministry Voice of the Martyrs goes on.

Gospel for Asia, I’ve quoted to you from its founder and president. If you’ll go to ReviveOurHearts.com, we’ll give you links to the websites for those ministries and you can learn more about those ministries and more about the persecuted church.

One of the challenges of recording material ahead of time as we do is if you say dated material, by the time it airs there will be new facts, new stats. But as of today, let me just tell you some of the things I found on those websites about what is happening in the church as we’re recording today in some countries of the world.

Take for example China. I read these following headlines in recent days:

  • “Christian Persecution Intensifies Across China”
  • “Prominent House Church Leader's Sons Severely Beaten by Public Security Bureau Officers”
  • “House Churches Banned in Yichun City, China.”

India:

  • “More Than 70,000 Christians Displaced in Orissa State Attacks.”

 These are current headlines as of this recording.

Chiapas, Mexico:

  • “Three Members of a Christian Family Killed After a Neighbor Blames Them for His Daughter’s Stomach Ailment.”

Saudi Arabia:

  • “A Saudi Member of the Religious Police Cut His Daughter’s Tongue Off and Burned Her to Death for Converting to Christianity.”

Eritrea—most who listen today don’t even know where Eritrea is. But this headline:

  • “Eight Students Imprisoned in Shipping Container After Protesting Bibles Being Burned.”

And then in Iraq—many brothers and sisters suffering for Christ in Iraq and neighboring country Iran as well.

  • “Iraqi Police Report Seven Christians Have Been Killed in Mosol so Far This Month.”

Actually, this morning in my inbox I had an update to that report. I subscribe to a religious news service that keeps you updated on some of these areas of the persecuted church. Just very currently: “Two Christian Sisters Murdered in Mosol by Islamic Terrorists." An estimated twenty-five to forty Christians have been killed by extremists in that city in the last month. And on and on and on we could go.

Now those people are somebody’s sister, daughter, mother, brother, father, son. There are people who love them, who are standing by and watching them pay the supreme price. They are part of our Body. They are part of our family. We need to care and to pray and to ask God to have mercy on their persecutors but also to pray for God’s grace to be poured out on those who are being faithful to the fight and faithful to the finish.

I quoted earlier in this series from the founder and president of Gospel for Asia, K.P. Yohannan, an interview that he gave that was entitled “Persecution Is Part of the Deal.” In that interview Mr. Yohannan says that

Christians have only minutes to work and an eternity to enjoy, yet the heart of the world’s "free" Church, "is barely beating.”

The churches in free countries are shallow and understand little of the heart of Jesus Christ. They are in a dark age [this is the free churches, churches in the free world]. They are in a dark age like the one that occurred before the Reformation brought about by Martin Luther. If true persecution was to occur in any of these countries [like the United States of America],  think there would be a great falling away.

Remember we said that’s one of the purposes of persecution. It’s testing to prove whose faith is genuine. He says we’d find a lot of people who claim to be Christians who really aren’t. They would fall away.

Christ calls us to follow him and be his disciples. The free Church needs to understand that persecution is a normal part of following Christ. Christianity is not about God delivering up what they want. Some day there will be millions and millions around the Throne and it will all make sense. Persecution is a price worth paying.

Persecution is a price worth paying. As I’ve reflected on the church in Smyrna and the things we’ve talked about in these days, I just realize we know so little of real suffering. And you have to wonder why.

Let me say this: If we are faithful in proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and that He is the only way to salvation and if we hold to the moral standards of God’s Word, the world will oppose us. Many times the religious world, false religions, the religious system that calls itself Christianity may oppose us as it did the church in Smyrna.

If we refuse to sacrifice to the gods of sex and money and power, if we refuse to sacrifice to the gods of secularism and consumerism and feminism and “me-ism,” sooner or later we will be persecuted.

Now, it may not be on such a grand scale as what we see in some of these other reports, although we don’t know that that will never happen in this country. But for sure it will happen on a scale where we will be tested.

The only way to avoid suffering for your faith is:

  • to compromise your faith
  • to fear man rather than God
  • to water down the message
  • to lower our standards

I can’t help but wonder if that’s why we haven’t seen more true persecution in this country because we have so diluted the gospel message and so watered down the standards of God’s holiness that we’re not an affront to anybody.

When true Christians begin to practice and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, there will be an affront created and there will be opposition.

As I write emails or notes to other Christian leaders and servants of the Lord, one thing I will often say as I sign my note is, “May the Lord keep you faithful in the race all the way to the finish line," all the way to the finish line.

That’s a prayer for my life. That’s my prayer for your life. The call to be a disciple of Christ, the call of this letter of the church in Smyrna is a call to be faithful, and that will be costly. There will be suffering involved of various types.

But do not fear. Be faithful. You see, as we are faithful, we let the world know that Jesus is the true and living God and that He is worth living for and that He’s worth dying for as well.

The hymn writer Isaac Watts said it this way:

Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

The saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer though they die:
They see the triumph from afar,
And seize it with their eye.

When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be thine.

So as Paul said to the Corinthians,

We do not lose heart for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen [tribulations, poverty, slander, even death] are transient, but the things that are unseen [Christ, the prize, the crown of life] those things are eternal (4:17–18).

And he says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

Leslie Basham: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been showing you how to live a bold life living according to the truth no matter what anyone else says or does in response. She's been unpacking the letter Jesus dictated to the church of Smyrna.

Studying the letters to the churches in Revelation will encourage you to live boldly, and we want to send you a resource that will encourage you to study these letters for yourself.

The booklet is called Ears to Hear: Learning from the Churches in Revelation. It will lead you through intriguing questions about these early chapters of Revelation. You will make these letters from Christ to these churches very personal and begin to act on what you’ve been reading.

You can only get Ears to Hear from Revive Our Hearts, and we’ll send you a copy when you make a donation of any amount to the ministry. Your gift will help allow us to broadcast in your area and to provide many online resources.

Donate at ReviveOurHearts.com or call 1–800–569–5959.

Nancy will continue teaching through the letters to the churches in Revelation in the coming weeks, but tomorrow we’ll take a break to hear about a kindness challenge. Shaunti Feldhahn will be our guest. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you live boldly for Jesus. It's an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

1"Martyrdom of Polycarp." Early Christian Writings. 2 Feb. 2006.

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