Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth reminds you that Jesus can relate to every struggle you're going through.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Do you feel alone? Jesus was left alone in His darkest hour. The point is, He's been there. He knows. He has walked this path before you. You are not walking uncharted territory. Every step you take, He will be there with you, and He knows.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Holiness, for Friday, August 18, 2017.

The book of Revelation begins with seven letters to seven churches, and one of those churches was facing intense hostility from outsiders. Jesus wrote to encourage them, and reading that letter will encourage anyone who is suffering today. Nancy's here to explain more. 

Nancy: Well, if you've been with us recently, you know we're in the middle of what's going to be a lengthy series on the seven letters to the churches in the book of Revelation, and we started in Revelation chapter 1 with that amazing vision of the resurrected, exalted Christ who comes and speaks to His churches. He walks in the middle of the seven lampstands that represent the churches, and He holds the leaders of those churches in His hand.

Then He speaks a word. He sends a letter, sends a message, to each of those churches and tells them what He sees, what's on His heart, what they need to do, how they need to be ministered to. As I've been studying these letters in recent months, this is the message of Christ, not only to the first century churches and the first century believers, but these messages are no less needed, no less relevant for twenty-first century churches and believers.

So as we're going through this series, I want to encourage you to be reading the letters in Revelation 2 and 3 for yourself. Read them over and over and over again, as I have in recent months, until they become part of your own thinking, till they get engrafted into your system. It's not enough just to hear me teach these passages, but you need to get into the Word for yourself and let the Lord speak to you as you get into His Word.

As we teach through these passages, I know sometimes as you're listening to Revive Our Hearts, you may be driving in a van. You may be working in your house or in your workplace, but if you're in a place where you can sit down and open your Bible and follow along, you'll find that you get even more out of these sessions.

Some of you, I know, are following on the Internet, and you can read the transcripts. You can listen to the audio there at ReviveOurHearts.com, but even if you're not in a place where you can do that right now, I want to encourage you to get out your Bible and follow along as we pick up in Revelation chapter 2.

We saw the first letter recently. We studied that, the letter to the church in Ephesus, and what was the theme there? They had left their first love and needed to have that restored. Now we come to the second letter of the seven. It's a letter to the church in Smyrna, S-M-Y-R-N-A. The word smyrna means "bitter," and it's almost identical to the word myrrh.

In fact, you remember the Hebrew word mara? Naomi said, “Don't call me Naomi, which means pleasant, but call me Mara, which means bitter" (Ruth 1:20, paraphrased). Life has been hard. It's bitter.

Myrrh is an extremely valuable ingredient that's used in making perfume and making incense. It's also used for embalming the dead, and as a result, it came to be associated with suffering and death. Myrrh is produced by taking a knife to the plant or the shrub, the tree that produces this resin. You take the knife, and you cut into the branches of that tree so that the sticky resin inside can be released. When that resin comes out, it has a bitter taste, but it has a fragrant aroma.

The church in Smyrna, related to the word myrrh, was a suffering church. It had been pierced. It had been wounded by bitter persecution, but as a result, there was a fragrance released in that church, a fragrance that was a sweet aroma to God and to the world around it.

As I was studying this matter of myrrh, I came across this phrase in Wikipedia that I thought was interesting. It says that "unlike most other resins, myrrh expands and 'blooms' when it's burned instead of melting or liquefying." I thought, What a great picture that is of what suffering does to the church of Jesus Christ! It's the persecuted church that is often the most pure church, that is often the most fragrant church.

In Fox's Book of Martyrs, we learn that five million Christians (I had no idea the number was that high) died for their faith in Christ during these first century persecutions. The churches and the believers in that era desperately needed encouragement. They needed perspective. They need hope. They needed assurance that God was still on His throne and that He hadn't forgotten them and that He had a plan and that He had purposes that were going to be fulfilled in the midst of their suffering.

So the letter to Smyrna is a letter to a persecuted church, a letter to a suffering church. It's one of two letters among these seven in which there is no word of rebuke. The other one is the church in Philadelphia. We'll come to that in due time, but in this letter and in the letter to Philadelphia, there is only encouragement. That's a reminder that God knows when to give rebuke and when to give encouragement. He knows what you need and when you need it, and God's heart toward you when you are hurting is to comfort you.

Now, if you're hurting because you have sinned, God knows that you need rebuke. He will love you enough to give you that, but if your suffering is simply a result of living life in a fallen world or of the attacks of Satan on the kingdom God, if it's suffering for Christ's sake, God knows that you need encouragement and comfort, and that's what He will give you.

In fact, that's what He's going to give many of us over these next days as we listen to what Jesus said to the church of Smyrna and take it for ourselves, so let me read the entire letter to the church in Smyrna. It's just four verses, and over these next several sessions, we're going to take it a phrase at a time and see what God has to say to our hearts.

I'm in Revelation chapter 2, beginning in verse 8.

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. 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” (vv. 8–11).

Now, the city of Smyrna is approximately thirty-five miles north of Ephesus. As we said in an earlier session, these seven churches are listed in an order that a postal carrier would have taken the letters in sequence in a circuit to deliver the letter of Revelation and these individual letters to the churches, so we started with Ephesus. Then we've moved about thirty-five miles north to the city of Smyrna, which is modern-day Izmir in Turkey. That's where you can see what was the city of Smyrna in New Testament times.

Smyrna was an important seaport town, and it was one of the oldest, most prosperous, beautiful cities in Asia. It was also one of the largest. At this time, it had a population of about 200,000, which was a large, large city in the first century.

Smyrna was also a leading center in Asia for emperor worship. The emperor of the Roman Empire was considered to be God, and worship of the emperor was not optional. In fact, once a year, every Roman citizen was required to take a pinch of incense and burn it on an altar to Caesar, and then he was to say, “Kurios Caesar” – “Caesar is lord.”

Once he offered the incense and made the pledge to Caesar as lord, he was given a certificate that he had fulfilled his duty as a Roman citizen. Anyone who refused to participate was considered politically disloyal to the empire. He became an outlaw, and there were consequences. He couldn't get a good job. He couldn't prosper economically. He lost his social standing. Life was hard for those who refused to say, “Kurios Caesar” – “Caesar is lord.”

Now, the Christians in the era were more than willing to submit to Rome's authority in civil matters, but they were not willing to offer sacrifices to Caesar or to acknowledge him as lord. They would not say “Kurios Caesar.” They could not say that. Instead, they would say, “Kurios Cristos,” – “Christ is Lord.” Jesus is Lord. We have no lord but Christ.

As a result of their refusal to acknowledge Caesar as lord, they were subject to persecution. The Christians who lived in Smyrna and in other cities in that area during this era, they knew that when they became a Christian, when they went public with that testimony, they risked losing their lives. So what is Christ going to say to these believers who believe in Him to such an extent that they are willing to suffer—they are willing to give their lives for their faith?

What is His heart? What is His message for those who are going through loss, those who are going through rejection, those who are going through heartache, those who are facing, day after day, the threat of death for themselves and for their loved ones?

Well, the first thing He's going to say is, “Here's who I am,” so Jesus identifies Himself to the church in Smyrna. He says through John, “Write this down. 'The words of the first and the last who died and came to life.'”

Now, do those words sound familiar to you? If you've been with us in this series, they should because back in chapter 1 when John was given a vision of the resurrected, exalted Christ, it says he was terrified. He fell on his face as though dead. Then Jesus reached out to him in verses 17 and 18, and He said,

Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

Now, each of these seven letters to the churches, in its introduction, identifies who is speaking, who is sending the letter, by giving us a description of Christ that is found in the vision in chapter one. So some of the details in chapter one make their way into these different letters. Each letter has a different description of Jesus, uses a different phrase, and I think it's interesting that Christ uses the aspect of Himself that is particularly appropriate for that church and that He knows will minister to their need at that time.

You see, every need in the church of Jesus Christ, every need in the church then, and every need in the church now and every need in your local church and every need in every individual believer's life is met in Jesus. It's Christ who is our life, who is our hope, who is our security, who is our strength, who is our peace, who is our joy. He's the One who meets our need, whatever that need may be.

Particularly in times of suffering, times of tribulation and trials, it's not as important to know why as it is to know who. Who is speaking to you? Who is holding you in the palm of His hand? Who is orchestrating the events of your life for His glory and for the advancement of His kingdom? It's the Lord Jesus, so at the beginning of each of these letters, Jesus challenges these churches to lift their eyes up above their circumstances, to look to Him.

Now, in this letter to the suffering church at Smyrna, Jesus identifies Himself in two ways. First, He says, “I am the first and the last.” You may recognize that as an Old Testament name for God. Isaiah chapter 44, “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel . . . 'I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god'” (v. 6). So Jesus is saying, “I am God.” The God of the Old Testament is the one who is still speaking to you and ministering to your needs today.

“The first and the last”—this says that He is eternal. There was nothing before Him, and there will be nothing after Him because there will be no end to Christ. He is the first and the last. He has always existed in the past. He will always exist in the future. He had the first word—“Let there be light”—and He will have the last word in all of human history.

As I was meditating on this phrase a week or so ago, “the first and the last,” I just kind of had this mental picture of bookends. You think of Christ as being what's on either side of these books, on the end of these books. These books encompass every page of history, all that has ever happened, and every page of my life, every page of my story. It all falls within the bounds of who Christ is.

He's the first and the last. He sees. He knows the whole span of human history. He sees, He knows the whole span of my life and everything about it, past, present, and future. He knows it all. He sees it all. Nothing takes Him by surprise. He is the first and the last.

I don't know about you, but that makes me feel safe, secure. There's so much I don't know, so much I can't figure out, so much I can't see, but He is at the beginning. He is at the end, and He encompasses every aspect of the pages of the story of our lives.

Not only is He eternal, but as the first and last, He is the sovereign Lord over history. He is supreme over every circumstance. He is in control.

Now, the sovereignty of God is not just a theological notion. It is that. It's an important one, but I want to tell you this. When you're suffering, as the church in Smyrna was, this is something you desperately need, and you can cling to it.

It's true that He is Lord.

  • Satan is not lord.
  • Caesar is not lord.
  • Your circumstances are not lord.
  • Your persecutors are not lord.
  • You are not lord.

Jesus is Lord. He is the first. He is the last. He is the sovereign Lord over all of history, and you can cling to that.

Not only is He the first and the last, but He also identifies Himself as the one who died and came to life. He died and came to life. That's going to be important as we see what's going on in the church in Smyrna and what they can expect to happen in the future.

Jesus lets them know that He was rejected. He was slandered. He was persecuted. He was put to death, and we are followers of Christ.

His path leads to the cross. So will our path as His followers, but He didn't just die. He defeated death. He came to life, and on the other side of the cross, there is supernatural resurrection, supernatural life, supernatural power and joy and victory and triumph.

He died. He came to life, and so will we. That's the promise. That's the assurance. The Christians in Smyrna faced, many of them, the imminent threat of death, but they were comforted by the fact that there was always with them One who had conquered death, who had stripped it of its power, One who knew what they were going through. Jesus said, “I died, and I came to life.”

Now, in verse 9, Jesus says, “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.” We'll jump more into that sentence over the next couple of sessions, but let me just get it started with those first two words.

Jesus says, “I know.” Now, there are two ways to know something. You can know it intellectually, by observation. But that's only one way to know something, intellectually, by observation.

There's another way to know something, and that is by personal experience. When Jesus says to the church, “I know your tribulation. I know your poverty. I know the slander you're being subjected to,” He knows. He knows for two reasons. He knows first because He sees it. Remember we saw in chapter 1 that His eyes are like a flame of fire? He's omniscient. He never loses sight of us while we're in the storm. He's watching when you're going through a hard time.

I love that phrase, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” He cares for me. He knows. He sees it, but He also knows because He's been there. He has personally experienced our suffering. He knows it experientially.

Hebrews 4 tells us,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (vv. 15–16).

Are you finding yourself pressed by the demands of life? Jesus knew what it was to be pressed by needy multitudes, thronging around Him at all hours of the day and night. Does your family misunderstand you? Jesus knows about that, too. His family misunderstood Him. Have you been rejected or falsely accused? Jesus knows about that. He was rejected. He was falsely accused.

Perhaps you've been abandoned or betrayed by someone you trusted. Jesus knows. He's been there. He was abandoned and betrayed by His closest friends. Maybe you're struggling financially to make ends meet or you're being threatened with foreclosure on your home. Jesus knows about that. He didn't have a place to call His own or to lay His head. He's been there.

Do you feel alone? Jesus was left alone in His darkest hour. The point is, He's been there. He knows. He has walked this path before you. You are not walking uncharted territory. Every step you take, He will be there with you, and He knows. As the old song says,

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth or song,
As the burdens press, and the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?

Does Jesus know? Does He care? And then the chorus:

Oh, yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.1

And Lord, how we thank You that You do know. You do care, and You are there. We worship You. You are the first and the last, the One who died and came to life. Thank You that You enter with us into our affliction, and You are there to walk us through it and to bring us out triumphant on the other side. I pray in Jesus' name, amen.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been offering hope for anyone in the middle of suffering. Her teaching is part of a series called "Letters to the Churches in Revelation, Part 3: Faithfulness and the Crown of Life." That series is part of a longer project we're working this year, studying all seven letters to the churches in Revelation.

To hear any series you've missed so far, visit ReviveOurHearts.com. You can order a CD, listen, or read the transcript online. Women around the world view ReviveOurHearts.com as a lifeline, connecting them with teaching they can't get anywhere else, and the website and radio program are made possible by listeners who contribute to the ministry.

When you donate any amount, we'll say thanks by sending you Ears to Hear: Learning from the Churches in Revelation. This booklet is easy to read, but the impact could last a lifetime. Ears to Hear will make Revelation personal. You'll discover how these letters to churches like the one in Ephesus mean so much for you today. Ask for Ears to Hear when you make a donation of any amount. Just call 1–800–569–5959 or donate at ReviveOurHearts.com.

If someone wanted to give you an incredibly huge gift, you wouldn't ignore them. Consider this, someone does want to give you an incredibly huge gift. Find out what it is and how to get it tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you in the painful moments of life. It's an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scriptures are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

1"Does Jesus Care?" Frank Graeff. 1901. Public Domain.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.