Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: Here’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with hope for anyone suffering.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Remember that Satan cannot test you without permission from God. God limits Satan’s freedom. And God loves you. He will not allow any testing to come into your life that is not for your good and for His ultimate glory.

Leslie Basham: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Forgiveness, for Tuesday, August 22, 2017.

We’ve been learning a lot from a church that was suffering. This church was one of seven that received a letter from Jesus in the book of Revelation. Nancy’s been teaching through these letters continuing with the church of Smyrna in the series "Letters to the Churches of Revelation, Part 3: Faithfulness and the Crown of Life."

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Some of you may be familiar with the Christian mission Gospel for Asia. It’s a ministry that has 16,000 national missionaries who plant churches and evangelize in some of the most difficult countries of the world, countries that are closed to the gospel in many cases and where there is widespread persecution of believers.

I came across recently an interview with the founder and president of Gospel for Asia, K.P. Yohannan. The interview was called “Persecution Is Part of the Deal.” And here’s what Mr. Yohannan had to say in that interview.

India is a place of persecution and suffering for anyone fulfilling the Great Commission. Every week there are nine or ten Gospel for Asia missionaries abused and beaten in different parts of the country [every week]. Some are driven from homes and killed for their faith. Are we surprised? Not at all. Jesus said we would be sent out as sheep among wolves.

Now you think of a sheep among wolves. You say, “What chance does a sheep have of surviving much less of overcoming? Sheep among wolves. What happens to sheep among wolves? They get killed. They get destroyed.

And the head of this ministry said, “This is happening on a regular basis in the country of India and other countries of the world.”

We’re looking at the second of seven letters to the churches in the book of Revelation—we’re in Revelation chapter 2 if you’re just joining us for this series. We're reading the letter to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna, the persecuted church. The word myrrh related to Smyrna. It means “bitter.” This was a church that was experiencing bitter persecution. They weren’t bitter about those persecutions, but the persecutions were very hard to take.

Jesus wants to encourage them, so He speaks to them and He says, “I am the first and the last who died and came to life” (Rev. 2:8). Then He tells them, “I know what you’re going through.” He knows not only because He sees it, but He knows because He’s been there. He Himself has suffered.

He says as God did in the book of Isaiah to the Israelites, “In all their affliction he was afflicted.” Jesus says, “I know what you’re going through. I know first your tribulation, the pressures, the demands, the burdens that are crushing in on you, and I know your poverty. I know that you’ve been stripped of your goods. I know you can’t get jobs because you have claimed that Jesus is Lord instead of agreeing that Caesar is lord. I know your poverty.”

Jesus says, “I was made poor. I gave up my home in heaven. I know. I’ve been there.”

And then He says thirdly, “I know the slander of those that say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). I know your tribulation; I know your poverty, and thirdly, we look at today this phrase: “I know about this slander that is being spoken against you” (2:9, paraphrased).

That word slander—if you’re using the New American Standard Bible it says “blasphemy.” That's a transliteration of the original word in the Greek language. Blasphemea is the word here for slander. It’s a compound word from two words that means “to injure in speech.” It’s speech that hurts, speech that injures. “It’s the worst kind of slander,” one Bible dictionary says, “wounding one’s reputation by evil reports.”

So these Christians in Smyrna were being slandered. There were evil reports, false reports that would wound their reputation, lies that were being told about them.

Jesus says, “I know about this slander. I know it. I see it. I know what you’re experiencing.” Jesus was slandered. That’s how He knows experientially.

What was the source of the slander here in Smyrna? He says, “It’s the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not” (2:9). 

Now let’s break that apart for a moment. The city of Smyrna, as we’ve said, had a population of about 200,000. In that city there was a large Jewish population. Those Jews who had rejected Christ and His gospel were openly hostile toward Jews who had believed in Christ and His gospel.

The Jews who were not believers would inform on the Christians to the Roman government, to the officials. They would betray the Christians. They would incite persecution, and they did it by slander. They did it by telling lies, absolute untruths, and the Romans believed them and persecuted the Christians as a result.

Now these Jews were Jewish in the sense of being ethnically Jews. They were physical descendants of Abraham. That’s why they said that they are Jews. But the Scripture says they are not real Jews.

What does that mean? They’re ethnic Jews, but they are not spiritual Jews. They are professing Jews, but in fact, they are not true Jews. They are not true worshipers of God.

The apostle Paul talks about this distinction between true Jews and those who were not true Jews in Romans chapter 2. He says that "no one who is a true Jew . . . outwardly nor is circumcision [the sign of Jewish membership given to Abraham] outward and physical." But a real Jew is one inwardly. It's an issue of the heart. "Circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter" (vv.28–29).

This was something that Jesus spoke to the Jews about in His day. In John chapter 8 the Jews said to Jesus, “Abraham is our father” (v. 39). In other words they’re saying, “We are good Jews; we’re practicing Jews.”

But Jesus said—and I’m paraphrasing here a lengthier paragraph in John chapter 8—essentially if you are Abraham’s children, if you were really Abraham’s children, you would be like him. You would believe what God says. He says, “By your actions and by your disbelief you are proving that not only is Abraham not your father but your real father is—who?—the devil” (see 8:39–44).

And so these Jews who were slandering the Christians in Smyrna they said were Jews. But God’s commentary on them is they are not really Jews. They are not true Jews. They are not spiritual Jews.

And in fact He says, “They are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). Now can’t you imagine that to any of these Jewish unbelievers in that day that this would have been a great indictment? A synagogue of Satan? The Jews claimed to be the most spiritually religious, godly people on the face of the earth. And believing Jews were.

But to unbelieving Jews, Jesus said, “You’re a synagogue of Satan.”

Now, I think it’s interesting to note that four of the seven letters to the churches in the book of Revelation talk about Satan. Satan is alive. He is well. And the church is being impacted and influenced by His activity in the world. We cannot be blind to that. We need to realize that though we cannot see him, he does exist, and he is at work.

The name Satan means “adversary.” And isn’t that what Satan is? He’s the adversary of God. He’s the adversary of God’s people. He’s an opposer of God and God’s people.

Another word that’s used for Satan is devil, and we see that later in this passage. The word devil means “slanderer” or “accuser,” diabalos. "I know the slanderer. I know the diabalos of those who say there are Jews and are not. They’re talking like the devil."

  • The devil is a slanderer.
  • He’s a liar.
  • He’s a deceiver.
  • He slanders and accuses God’s children.

And so did these unbelieving Jews. This real enemy, Satan, is a deceiver, and he’s determined to destroy the church and to keep it from spreading the gospel. He was working through these unbelieving Jews to accomplish his mission, to speak slander against the Christians, to falsely accuse them to the Romans.

So those Jewish slanderers in Smyrna were hostile to Christ and His followers. They professed to worship God. They said, “We’re true Jews.” They said, “We’re religious. We worship God.” But by their rejection of Christ they demonstrated that they were still in the kingdom of darkness and Satan. Jesus said, “They are a synagogue of Satan.”

“They go to a building,” God says, “but I’m not there. They’re not worshiping me in that building. They have rituals. They have rules, but they have no heart for God. They are under Satan’s domain, under Satan’s leadership, fulfilling his purposes.”

And this is a reminder. Those who say that they are Jews and are not are a synagogue of Satan. Things are not always as they seem. The true people of God, whether Old Testament Jews or the New Testament church, the true people of God are not defined by their genealogy but by their relationship with Jesus, their faith in Him. It’s followers of Christ who are true believers.

I wonder if God were writing this letter today to our churches if He might say of some, “They say that they are Christians, but they are not really. They are nominal Christians in name only. They’re actually undermining the work of Christ. They are a synagogue of Satan”?

You see, just because it’s got a steeple on it and just because it calls itself a church doesn’t make it a church. Many of our so-called churches today are filled with professing “believers” (I say that in quotes) who do not have a true relationship with Jesus Christ, and their lives are undermining the witness of Christ in this world.

Jesus would say of them, “They are a synagogue, a church, of Satan.” Now those are serious words. But we need to think about this as we examine the condition of our churches and our lives today. Are we what we profess to be, or are we something opposite of that.

So the church in Smyrna is experiencing tribulation, poverty, and slander. They’re in desperate need of comfort. And Jesus has said to them, “I know what you’re going through. I know your tribulation. I know your poverty. I know the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Now what you’d like to hear next is Jesus saying, “Hold on! It’s almost over. I’m on my way. I’m coming. I’m going to rescue you out of this mess. I’m going to vindicate you. I’m going to judge the Romans. I’m going to judge these Jewish slanderers. I’m going to judge Satan who is your adversary.”

But that’s not the message Jesus sends these suffering believers. Instead—look at the next verse—he tells them to prepare for worse days and trials ahead. You say, “That doesn’t seem like much comfort.” It’s exactly what they need to hear, and it’s exactly what we need to hear when we’re suffering. Look at verse 10.

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.

Wow. Look at the words in that sentence: suffer, prison, tested, tribulation. You say, “Aren’t they already going through enough?”

Jesus is saying to this church, “Expect tribulation.” And that’s a theme you see throughout the New Testament. If you refuse to worship Caesar, if you refuse to worship the gods of this age, you will be opposed and you will suffer consequences.

Jesus was not spared the cross. The Christians in Smyrna were not spared tribulation. So who are we to think that we will be spared going through fires of tribulation and affliction?

Many of you know the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a Lutheran pastor who was martyred in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. In his book The Cost of Discipleship he says,

Suffering is the badge of the true Christian. The disciple is not above his Master. . . . Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer.

That’s what Peter says in his epistle. Don’t let it catch you off guard. Don’t be surprised when these sufferings come upon you. Expect it. Suffering is going to happen. If there is no suffering in your life, if there is no affliction in your life and ultimately if there is no persecution in some measure then you have to wonder, “Are we really standing for the right thing?”

The world opposes Christ, opposes His gospel. And when you stand with Christ as Lord and when you stand with the gospel of Christ and refuse to compromise, you will be opposed.

Now we see another reference here to the devil. The devil is about to throw some of you into prison. We’re reminded that the devil is allowed to afflict God’s people at times. You see that in the whole story of Job.

We tend to blame the people and the circumstances that we can see. We say, “This is the cause, the Roman government or my husband or my kids or my boss or my job or my whatever.” That’s where we tend to put the focus.

But ultimately, Satan, this unseen enemy, is behind all human opposition to God and to Christ and to the gospel. He is the one behind the persecution of the church. Ultimately, it’s not the government that’s persecuting believers in these countries around the world. They’re just instruments in Satan’s hand that he is using to accomplish his purposes. It’s Satan who comes as a lion seeking to devour the people of God.

Then he says the devil is about to throw some of you into prison. Now you need to understand that when those first century believers heard this phrase, they understood that in that day prison was not generally a place you were sent to be punished. Prison was a place to await execution.

So when he said the devil is going to throw some of you into prison, they understood that some of them were not going to come out alive, that they were going to die painful, cruel, torturous deaths.

Then we see in all of this very sad and negative story the beautiful picture of the providence of God. You say, “Where do you see the providence of God in this?” You are about to suffer. The devil is about to throw some of you into prison. You will be tested. For ten days you will have tribulation.

Well what does providence mean? It comes from two words: pro and video, “before,” and “to see.”

  • God sees beforehand what’s going to happen.
  • He knows.
  • He orders.
  • He orchestrates.
  • He ordains.

He knows what is ahead. He knows the suffering that is coming, and He’s telling them in advance not to be afraid.

He knows what’s going to happen. There’s nothing ahead of them and there’s nothing ahead of you that God is not aware of. In His providence He sees it, and He’s going before you to make provision for you in the midst of that.

So Paul said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go into these cities as I travel except for one thing. the Holy Spirit tells me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.”

You see, God knows. He knows what you’ve been through. He knows what you’re going through now. He knows what you’re going to go through in the days ahead. And that should encourage our hearts that we are tethered to the providence of God even in our sufferings.

Then we see a purpose in all of this suffering. Look at verse 10 again. “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”—what?—“tested.” Tested.

Now who is doing the testing? Is it Satan who is testing or is it God who is testing? I think the answer is yes. I believe it’s both.

Satan was testing those believers in Smyrna trying to get them to deny Christ, trying to prove by falling away from the faith that they really didn’t belong to Christ. And Satan tempts us. He tests us.

Satan’s goal through these testings is to destroy us, to destroy our witness. God’s goal in these testings is to purify us, to make us come forth as gold, to demonstrate and to deepen the reality of our faith.

Regardless of who’s doing the testing—and I do believe it’s both—remember that Satan cannot test you without permission from God. God limits Satan’s freedom, and God loves you. He will not allow any testing to come into your life that is not for your good and for His ultimate glory.

So why does God test us? Why does He allow Satan to test us, to bring these afflictions, this poverty, this slander? Why does God allow these things to come into our lives? That could be the subject of longer series than this, and it has been on Revive Our Hearts. But let me just tick off several reasons of many of why God would allow Satan to test us. 

These testings prove the sincerity of our faith and our love for Christ.

You see, persecution reveals who really knows Christ, who really loves Christ because if a person’s faith is not genuine, then in time of testing they’re going to fall away. They’re going to deny Christ. If you endure through testing you prove the reality of your faith and your faith is strengthened.

Another purpose of testing is to conform us to the image of Christ, to make us like Jesus. If Jesus suffered, can we be like Him if we don’t?

Suffering helps us to learn obedience. Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus, even Jesus, in some way learned obedience through the things which He suffered. We learn to say, “Yes, Lord” through times of testing.

Testing makes us dependent upon God. I love that passage in 2 Corinthians 1:8 where the apostle Paul says,

We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

We are stripped of self-reliance when we become dependent on God through these testings.

And then testing has this purpose: It causes our hearts to become detached from earth and attached to heaven. If everything down on this earth were easy, we would love it so much here we’d never want to leave.

But God knows. He’s prepared for us something far greater. He wants us to love what lies ahead, so He allows these testings in our lives to cause our hearts to become more firmly attached to eternity.

And the testings purify us as fire refines gold and removes impurities.

There is that amazing verse in 1 Peter 4:1,

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.

There is something about suffering that is purifying in our lives.

And then suffering makes us spiritually mature. It makes us steadfast and strong. So that’s why James says,

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect [Embrace the suffering; embrace the test. In fact, consider it a joy when you go through these things because if you let the steadfastness and the testing of your faith have their full effect] you will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2–4).

Now I want us to just look at one other little phrase Jesus says to the believers in Smyrna. “For ten days you will have tribulation.” That ten days is a Greek phrase that means “a short time.” It’s a limited, defined period of time. It’s not necessarily literally ten days. It means a defined period of time.

  • Who determines how long the period of time is? God does.
  • Who controls who goes through that tribulation? God does.
  • Who controls when it happens? God does.
  • Who controls its intensity, the intensity of that tribulation? God does.
  • Who controls the duration of that testing? God does.

The testing may be intense, but ladies, listen to me. It will not go on forever. You say, “It seems like forever.” It’s not forever. It will have an end. And God knows the exact moment at which to turn off the heat, to turn off the furnace and to let you out. And at exactly that moment but not a moment sooner, God will let you out; He will deliver you.

For some believers in Smyrna their suffering was going to end in physical death. But because of their faith in Christ, these believers could go to their death in the lion’s dens, in the arenas, at the stake being burned alive; they could go to their death singing hymns of praise to God. Why? Because they knew that death was not a defeat. Death was not the end. It would prove for them to be a doorway to victory and life. And through laying down their lives they were following in the steps of Christ who said, “I died and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades.”

So here’s the promise. “After you have suffered a little while,” 1 Peter 5:10 says. When? “After you have suffered.” For how long? “It’s a little while.” "The God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you."

And what’s the outcome? "To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen" (v. 11).

Leslie Basham: You know everybody suffers in some way. Has your suffering been pointing other people to Christ? Nancy’s been showing us how that can be done in a series called "Faithfulness and the Crown of Life." It’s one of many series that will take us through the letters to seven churches in the book of Revelation.

During this series we want to help you apply what you’re learning to your life, so we’d like to send a booklet called Ears to Hear: Learning from the Churches in Revelation. Each letter to each church will take on a new meaning as you see how it relates to your relationships, your family, your church, and your walk with God.

When you donate any amount to Revive Our Hearts, Ears to Hear will be yours. It’s our way of saying "thank you," and we’ll send it when you donate at ReviveOurHearts.com, or call 1–800–569–5959.

When you go into a time of suffering, it’s an opportunity to get to know Jesus at a deeper level. Nancy will explain why tomorrow. I hope you’ll be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you be prepared for any suffering that comes. The program is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the ESV.

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