Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: Other people are observing you, watching how you handle pressure. Here’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Our willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ glorifies God in this way. It becomes a visible witness to the watching world that Jesus is worth living and dying for.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Forgiveness, for Friday, August 25, 2017.

Think of a character in history that you admire. It’s likely that they went through some very difficult trials. The way they handled the pressure is one of the reasons you admire them.

When other people watch your life, what do they notice about the way you handle pressure? Nancy will help you think that through, continuing in a series called "Letters to the Churches in Revelation, Part 3: Faithfulness and the Crown of Life."

Nancy: The date was February 2, and the year was about 156 A.D. The Jews had incited the Romans to arrest an eighty-six-year-old church leader called Polycarp. They had made wild accusations against him—totally untrue.

It was a festival day, so crowds were out celebrating, and the mob was easily inflamed. On the way to the amphitheatre, the Roman officer who had arrested Polycarp begged him to recant.

He said, “What harm can it do to just burn a little bit of incense to Caesar?”

Polycarp said, “I can’t do it.”

So he was taken into the amphitheatre, and he was dragged before the Roman proconsul, who once again urged him to recant.

He said, “Swear by Caesar, blaspheme Christ, and I will release you.” And then Polycarp said these very famous words: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and He has never done me wrong. How can I speak evil of my King who saved me?”

Well, the Proconsul said, “We’re going to throw you to the lions if you don’t recant,” and Polycarp said, “Bring the lions on.”

Then the Proconsul said, “Well, no, we’re going to burn you at the stake. We’ll light a fire to you.”

Polycarp said, “It is well. I fear not the fire that burns for a season and after a while is quenched. Why do you delay? Come do your will.”

It happened to be a Sabbath day, and in violation of their own laws against working on the Sabbath, the Jews led the way in gathering wood for the fire on which Polycarp was to be burned.

He was led to the stake. They were going to nail him to the stake, but he said, “No, I’m not going to escape,” so they just tied him to the stake.

Then he prayed. A part of that prayer was, “I bless You that You have counted me worthy for this day and hour, that I might be in the number of the martyrs.”

At the moment that Polycarp said “Amen,” the flame was lit, and the fire began to burn him alive. Actually, the wind was blowing that day, and the flames were being blown away from him, so he was being tortured, but not killed.

After a while, a soldier mercifully pierced him with a sword and put him out of his misery. Polycarp was a bishop of the church in Smyrna, and many believe he was a disciple of the apostle John, who was given the Revelation of Jesus Christ to give to the church at Smyrna.

At the time Revelation was written, about 95 A.D., Polycarp would have been a young man, about in his mid-twenties. He was probably a member of the church of Smyrna when the letters to the churches were sent and read.

He probably would have been in that congregation when these words were read,

And to the angel of 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” (Rev. 2:8–10).

If Polycarp did indeed hear those words, or certainly he would have come to know of them later, don’t you think that those words would have prepared him for what he would have to face sixty years later?

How those words must have ministered strength and grace to him in his hour of trial. I wonder as he was being arrested and taken to that amphitheatre and in discussion with the proconsul, and then seeing the wood being dragged in and being bound to that stake and seeing the flame lit, if perhaps he wasn’t hearing those words ringing in his ears, “I know your tribulation”—Christ speaking.

And then Christ saying, “Don’t fear what you’re about to suffer. Be faithful unto death, be faithful unto death, be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

You may not be suffering now in any great degree, but God knows, as we’ve seen in this passage, what we will face in days and years to come.

This is what’s going to happen. In that case, God told the church at Smyrna what was going to happen. He doesn’t always tell us, but He does know. He knew what was going to happen to Polycarp sixty years later.

He knows what you’re going to face days or months or years from now, and as we read and hear this letter to the church in Smyrna, today, God wants to prepare us for the suffering that we may face in different ways in days to come.

What is the counsel of Christ to the church that is already suffering so much, and the church that is going to have even greater suffering in the days ahead?

He gives them two words of exhortation. Number one, He says, “Do not fear.” Literally, “Stop being afraid.” That command, “Fear not,” is given over 300 times in the Scripture.

You read it all the way through the Old and New Testament. I wonder if that’s not because God knows that we are so prone to fear.

  • We fear what we don’t know.
  • We fear what we do know.
  • We fear things that have happened.
  • We fear things we think might happen.
  • We fear things that are happening.
  • We fear things we think might happen but never do happen.

We’re so prone to fear, and God’s Word says, “Stop being afraid.” That word for fear there is the word from which we get our word phobia. Don’t be a phobic person. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be fearful.

It’s a word that means “to be put to flight.” When you’re fearful, you just want to run. You want to get away. You want to escape. The word means to be struck with fear or seized with alarm, and you know how fear can be paralyzing. It makes you want to run, or it can make you just stand dead still in your tracks.

Whichever is your inclination, God’s Word says, "Don’t be afraid. Don’t be seized with alarm. Don’t be struck with fear. Don’t be put to flight."

We will find ourselves in fearful circumstances, and there is that natural emotion of fear, but we are not to let that fear rule us. We’re not to let fear determine our response or our behavior.

The fact is, your persecutors may be able to take your physical life, but that’s the worst they can do to you, and that will only result—if it is suffering for Christ’s sake—it will only result in your receiving the crown of life.

So, actually, they do you a service, is how the early martyrs thought. They thought, This suffering is only for a moment. It’s only for a season. It’s going to be over. All the sufferings of this life will be past, and then we will have that crown of life in the presence of Christ, whom we love. We will be victors. We will be overcomers. We will be conquerors.

They can’t take the crown of life from you. They can take your physical life, but they can’t take your eternal life from you.

Perhaps this is what Jesus was referring to in Matthew chapter 10, verse 28, when He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.”

If you fear God in an appropriate way of humble reverence and awe, you won’t have to be afraid of man.

And then this tender word He gives there in Matthew chapter 10:29, “Are not two sparrows, [the least, just a tiny, common, everyday variety of bird] sold for a penny?” They’re considered worthless in our economy.

But then He says, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” God knows. God sees. God cares, and so don’t fear what man can do to you.

Psalm 23:4, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

As I was studying last night, preparing for this session, I thought of that passage in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian went to the city, Vanity Fair, and it was a worldly city. It was wild, it was raucous, it was celebrating, and he was with his friend Faithful who, like him, had come out of the city of Destruction and was on his way to the Celestial City, to Heaven.

In that city, the people in Vanity Fair tried to make Christian, or Pilgrim, and Faithful, adopt their lifestyle. They said, "No, we're not staying here. This world is not our home; we're just passing through." So they refused to partake of the pleasures, the illicit pleasures, in that city. 

It’s in that city that they were both captured and Faithful laid down his life as a martyr. There was no fear, because he knew that Christ was with him, and he was going into the presence of Christ. Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, Christ will be there with you.

So Jesus says first, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t fear.” And then He says second, “Be faithful unto death.” In the Greek language, the word that is translated faith is the same word that is translated faithful. It’s the same word—faith and faithful.

Faith produces faithfulness. Faith counters fear. Don’t be afraid. “Be faithful unto death.” Have faith, and the faith will give you faithfulness, and the faith will counter fear.

How do you override fear? You do it with faith—faith in Christ. “When I am afraid, I will trust in You.” Fear overridden by faith—faith in Christ.

So, He says, persevere. Be faithful. Persevere. Don’t give up. Don’t yield. Don’t worship Caesar. Keep worshiping Christ. Persevere, even if your faithfulness to Christ means that you will pay for it dearly, perhaps even the cost of your life.

I saw a study recently saying that in 2000 years of Christian history, there are about 70 million faithful saints who have given their lives for the faith, and of those, 45.5 million were in the last century. It’s happening today—throughout 2000 years of Christianity there have been those who have said, “I believe in Christ, and my faith is such that I cannot, I will not deny Him. I’m willing to be faithful to Him. I have to be faithful to Him. He is my Lord, He is my Lover, He is Christ, I will be faithful to Him.”

They paid for that faith with their lives. I was talking about this whole subject of worldwide persecution of the Church recently with my hairdresser who is a believer, and we were discussing the whole topic.

She said, “Boy, I’m so impressed by those who are suffering, who are laying down their lives.” And then she said, “I sometimes wonder if I would be faithful under persecution.”

How can you know if you would be faithful if your faith were put to the test, as it has been for so many? As we talked about it, really our answer was, you can’t know about then, but you can know you’re being faithful now.

God’s not calling most of us right now to lay down our lives, literally, physically. But He does call us to be faithful in the little ways of denying the flesh, saying “yes” to Christ, “no” to this world’s system. Be faithful now. Be faithful tomorrow. Be faithful the next day. That is developing a pattern in your life of faithfulness to Christ, and then you will know that when that hour of trial comes, He will give you the grace to be faithful then.

The term, literally, there is “become faithful unto death.” Through the process of suffering, your faith is tested and grows, and you experience more of His grace, and you become more faithful.

So keep becoming faithful, and just a reminder that our faithfulness is built on the foundation and the assurance that God is faithful.

I’m so often reminded when my life has tough moments, and I even hate to talk about that in the context of talking about these martyrs, but there are days, and there are moments of life when it’s hard to say “yes” to Christ and easier to say “yes” to the flesh.

There are moments when I think, Oh, Lord, it’s not my faithfulness that’s keeping me hanging on to You. It’s Your faithfulness and the fact that You’re hanging on to me.

It’s His faithfulness that is the bedrock, the foundation, the security. It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t tell them when He tells them they’re going to suffer—He doesn’t say, “Grin and bear it.” He doesn’t say, “Gut it out on your own.”

He tells them to trust Him and His faithfulness as they walk through the fire. He’s saying, I’ve been there. I’m going through it with you. I will carry you through this. I was dead, and now I’m alive, and I have the keys of death and Hades. Trust Me.

Some of you are familiar with the name Joseph Tson, who for many years was a pastor in Romania under the oppressive Ceausescu regime—that wall came down in 1989, but in the 70s and 80s, God was moving in a great way in Romania and in revival among the churches, and many believers there paid dearly for their faith.

Joseph was tortured for his faith. He was imprisoned; he was interrogated, and I remember him telling a story that I wanted to verify for this session, so I had someone in my office send him an email and said, “Could you make sure I’ve got the facts straight on this?”

Rather than my telling the story, his email back was so beautiful, I want to take the rest of our time together and read the email to you. It fits so beautifully with this passage we’ve been looking at—the letter to the church in Smyrna.

Joseph Tson was, by the way, exiled from Romania ultimately, and lives today in the United States, but is continuing in ministry to the country of Romania. He said:

The Lord blessed me to grow up in a home of very devout Christians. They were the first Baptists in our area, and they went through a lot of persecution. No wonder, in their bedroom, in the most prominent place, they had this Scripture written beautifully on a glass plaque: Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. As their bedroom was also our living room, I may say that I grew up under this Scripture.

As I grew up, one day I wanted to read this Scripture for myself, so I opened up to Revelation 2:10, and I was surprised to read that they were going to be imprisoned just for ten days. This wasn’t to be a big deal. Why then the advice to be faithful unto death? Not until years later, when I studied the issue of martyrdom, did I come to see what was behind that statement.

When a person was denounced that she was a Christian, she would be summoned to the authorities and asked if indeed she was a Christian. If she responded, "No," she would be asked to prove it by taking a pinch of incense and spreading it above the fire of the altar of Caesar and saying, "Caesar is Lord." If she did that, she would be given a certificate that she worshiped Caesar and would be set free.

If she responded, "No, I cannot say that Caesar is Lord, because only Jesus Christ is Lord," she would be immediately taken into the room for torture, and there she would be tortured cruelly the entire day to force her to confess that Caesar is Lord. If she resisted all that torture, she would be condemned to die in the arena. She would be taken to prison for ten days, to let the most visible wounds of the torture be healed, and then after those ten–fourteen days, she would be taken to be martyred in the arena.

Then I understood that being thrown in prison for ten days meant confirmed martyrdom. Therefore, "Be faithful unto death" was very meaningful indeed!

One day I read in Hebrews 2, verse 15 that Satan keeps people in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. I came to see clearly that in our situation, under the terror of Communism, that was indeed the supreme weapon of Satan. Everybody was afraid of being arrested and being sent to the labor camp to perish there. That is why everybody learned to say only what Communists expected them to say. It was then that I asked the Lord to really liberate me from fear of dying.

There were three ways in which He liberated me. First, I understood that literally He died my own death. Therefore, I shall never die; I shall only go home to be with my Lord, where it is much better. Second, He made me understand that when I die for Him and for the gospel, this in itself is a way of defeating Satan and makes for the triumph of the gospel (this is the essential meaning of martyrdom).

Let me insert here, that’s one of the purposes of the testing God takes us through. We talked about this in the last session, but our willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake glorifies God in this way. It becomes a visible witness to the watching world that Jesus is worth living and dying for.

And so Joseph Tson says, “My willingness to die for the gospel is a way of defeating Satan and makes for the triumph of the gospel.”

Third, if I am full of love for the very people who will persecute me, torture me, and kill me, I cannot be afraid of them, because there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts away fear. This liberation is the basis of all that followed in my story.

When I was first summoned to the secret police headquarters in 1974, and an officer was upset that I did not want to do what he wanted, and threatened to kill me, I responded calmly: "Sir, let me explain this issue of you killing me. Yes, you can do it, but sir, you should know that your supreme weapon is killing, but my supreme weapon is dying.

“Here’s how it works, sir. You know that my sermons are on tapes all over the country. When you kill me, you just sprinkled them with my blood, because everybody will know that I died for my preaching. Everybody who has a tape of one of my sermons will take it and listen to it again, and say, ‘I can trust what this man says, because he died for what he preached.’ Sir, my preaching will speak ten times louder after you kill me, because you kill me. In fact, I shall conquer this land for God because you kill me. So go on and do it."

He was shocked. He pondered for a moment and said, "Wait here for a few minutes." Apparently, he went and reported to his boss, because when he came back, with a very calm voice, he said, "You go home, and we shall see what will happen."

Another aspect of this story came in 1977 when I was charged with treason and was threatened to be executed. An interrogator who was acting very scared came to me and explained that I had better make a compromise and thus save my life.

I calmly said, "Sir, there is no need to save my life. Just go on and shoot me. I am ready for it." He exploded in fury! "What sort of man are you? When I say to somebody that I will kill him, he jumps in fear, but you smile to your ears, and say, 'Kill me.' You are not normal!”

In his email, Joseph’s comment on that conversation was,

Yes, I am not normal, because I was liberated from fear of dying, and I came to see there that they can do nothing to a man who is not afraid of dying.

They can do nothing to a man who is not afraid of dying. You see, the supreme weapon of the enemy is killing, but our supreme weapon against the enemy is dying. For some, it may mean physically laying down their life.

For all it will mean saying “no” to self, denying your flesh, taking up your cross, and following Jesus Christ. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” Jesus says to the suffering church and to the suffering believer. “Instead, be faithful unto death. Persevere, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Leslie: Many of our listeners have received encouragement in their suffering by getting a copy of a resource our team created called Ears to Hear: Learning from the Churches in Revelation.

This resource will provide important things for you to think about while you study the letters to the churches in Revelation. You’ll gain a new sense of courage and persistence in the face of challenges while you study Revelation using this resource.

We’ll send it when you make a donation of any amount to Revive Our Hearts. It’s our way of showing our gratitude when you help us stay on the air and on podcast.

Ask for Ears to Hear when you donate by phone. The number is 1–800–569–5959, or donate at our website, ReviveOurHearts.com.

Is it possible to avoid suffering as a child of God? Nancy will address that Monday.

Nancy: 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. Now she’ll lead us in prayer.

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

Leslie: I hope you can be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you stay joyful in suffering. It's an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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

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