BE STRONG AND FAITHFUL
by Pastor Martha-Jean Fitch
October 22, 2017
TEXT: Revelation 2:8-11; Revelation 3:7-11
In 1978, I graduated from high school and moved to Fort Worth, Texas where I would attend college at Texas Christian University. The first Sunday I was in Fort Worth, I joined the University Christian Church and started attending each and every Sunday I was in town. I loved it and became very active - singing in the choir, going to Sunday School and worship and our college fellowship.
One day, in my sophomore year, I came out of my dorm room, which was right across the street from the church, and heard sirens. They were close-by. So, I decided I would walk around to see what was happening. Much to my shock and surprise, I discovered that my church - the University Christian Church - was on fire! The whole Education Wing - the rooms where we had Sunday School and College Fellowship - were up in flames.
I couldn't believe my eyes. I kept saying in disbelief, "My church is on fire! My church is on fire!" Soon, I felt tears running down my face. How could this have happened? I was sure that the fire had been an accident. Maybe it was an electrical fire. But I was shocked to find out later that it was caused by an arsonist. An angry young man who wanted to hurt the church. How in the world? How could anyone want to hurt a church?
The following Sunday, we had to worship in an auditorium on the college campus. The Education Wing of our church was completely gutted and there was smoke damage to the entire building. I still remember huddling together in that auditorium, praying that God would strengthen us and give us hope. We would not let the work of some crazy arsonist tear the church apart. We would stand firm together, stay faithful and keep our eyes focused on Christ.
Unfortunately, stories like this one - of someone wanting to hurt the church - and Christians - continues today in many ways, all over the world. I recently discovered a website called Open Doors that reaches out to minister to persecuted Christians. The site also informs everyone about where persecution is happening in our world right now. The statistics are staggering. 322 Christians are killed for their faith a month! And it is estimated that some 214 churches are destroyed - some by fire - every month. And 772 forms of violence committed against Christians - every month!!1
Open Doors also has a world watch list, that lists the 50 top countries where high to extreme persecution is occurring. The country that has the worst persecution is in North Korea. It is illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and Christians are often sent to labor camps or are killed if they are discovered. The conditions in this country have remained the worst in the world for Christians for the past 13 years.
North Korean Christian believers are isolated, under surveillance and are forced to meet in quiet secrecy. "But when they hear about other believers around the world, like you and me, are praying for them and supporting them-and cheering them on in the faith-it gives them deep, spirit-lifting power to persevere in the Name of Christ." Open Doors website is currently organizing a letter campaign, on their website, to make sure each of these believers knows how much we care about them and pray for them. So free of charge, you can send an email that Open Doors will deliver through underground channels, that will help encourage these Christians. As the website says, "sometimes a heartfelt letter that arrives on a tough day can literally be the touch of Jesus."2
So, a couple of days ago, I wrote a free email to a North Korean Christian using the words from our text today - words that helped two churches from the 1st century who were also going through persecution. Words spoken to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia.
Smyrna and Philadelphia are two of the seven churches mentioned in John's book of Revelation the last book of our Bible. John, himself, was a victim of persecution when the Roman Emperor Domitian boiled him in oil and banished him to the island of Patmos. Domitian was a cruel Roman emperor who declared himself Lord and ordered everyone to worship him. John - and other early Christians - refused to say "Caesar is Lord" - but only that "Jesus is Lord" and thus the persecution of the Christians intensified.
As we continue to study the seven churches of Revelation through our sermon series, we will see that most of the letters will contain praises and condemnations from Jesus to the churches. But the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia were different. Jesus had no words of condemnation for these two churches - only words of comfort and encouragement. These two churches were facing persecution from the government and from the Jewish synagogues - and seemed to be filled with a sense of their own weakness and poverty.
Last week, we heard that Ephesus was the first church to receive a letter. Their message was to remember, repent and return to the Lord, their first love. John's second letter was to the church at Smyrna a seaport city just forty miles north of Ephesus. Smyrna was a wealthy city of about 100,000 people, second only to Ephesus in this area. It is considered by historians to be the most exquisite city the Greeks ever built because of the streets inside the city, the natural harbor and the roads that led to it. The city was surrounded by temples for every known heathen god and emperor worship was commanded to all citizens of Rome. Because the Christians in Smyrna refused to bow down and worship the emperor, they were facing severe persecution, poverty, imprisonment and even death. John writes to Smyrna to encourage them and remind them of the Lord's promises.
And in much the same way, John writes a letter to the church of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is about 84 miles east of Smyrna. It was an important town in Asia Minor. It was built with the purpose of bringing Greek culture and language to this part of Asia Minor. It was filled with shrines and temples to various pagan gods - including one to Caesar. Christians in Philadelphia were attacked by the Jews and shut out of the synagogue - leaving them weak and powerless in a pagan and persecuting culture. They needed that word from Jesus that lifted them up and encouraged them.
As we look at both of these letters, we find many words of hope and encouragement for these two churches that are undergoing persecution and words that give us hope for whatever hardship we are facing.
First you see that the letter to Smyrna is from Jesus - "the First and the Last, who died and came to life again." (v.8) Jesus - the One who knows what it is like to be persecuted .the One who was killed - and the One who defeated death and came back to life! He knows the trouble the church is going through, the pain they are suffering from imposters and from evil in their world. He sees and understands. He knows.
We may not always understand why there is pain and suffering - but we know for sure that Jesus understands what we're going through. He has suffered beyond anything we will ever endure. And yet, He was not defeated by that suffering. He is alive today and knows our needs; He will see us through whatever we're going through.
Next, Jesus says, "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer". (v. 10) Some of the Christians in Smyrna would be thrown into prison - some might even die. I'm sure they were afraid. They needed to be reminded that God was with them and they had nothing to fear. As it says in Isaiah 43: "Don't be afraid! I've redeemed you. I've called your name. You're mine. When you're in over your head, I'll be there with you. When you're in rough waters, you will not go down. When you're between a rock and a hard place, it won't be a dead end." (Isaiah 43:1-3, Message Bible) That's a promise we can cling to - to help us face whatever suffering might come our way.
Pastor Adam Diebert tells the story of a time in his life when he was going through a really difficult time. He wasn't sure what to do or how in the world he was going to get through it. So he called a dear friend - his mentor - and shared his burden with her. All at once, in the middle of him telling her how hopeless the whole situation seemed, she started laughing. Adam was shocked and couldn't understand how she could be so insensitive. So, he asked her why she was making light of his difficult situation. Her words had a deep impact on him. She said: "Do you think this situation is a surprise to God? Do you think you're facing it alone? Adam, you're gonna face this, and you're gonna win, because God's got your back." ("Hold Fast Thy Crown" by Adam Deibert)3
Does God have your back? As you face hard times, the crushing blows that come from time to time, do you have the assurance that God is right there beside you? You don't have to be afraid. You may not think you can handle it, but as you recognize that the power of Almighty God is on your side, you can be certain you'll make it through.
In verse 10, the last instruction Jesus gives the church at Smyrna is to "be faithful until death". Jesus never says that by being faithful to him we will avoid troubles, suffering and persecution. Rather, we are to be faithful to Him in the midst of our suffering. We are to keep our eyes on Him and trust Him through the good times and the bad - faithful to the very end of our life.
The Christians in Philadelphia stayed faithful. They went through a difficult time of suffering they struggled and yet remained faithful! They had not compromised their faith. Jesus praises them because: they had kept God's word; they had not denied the name of Jesus; and they had patiently endured.
And yet - the Christians in Philadelphia were feeling weak and inadequate - powerless. Maybe they were feeling like they weren't affecting any of the people around them not making any difference at all. Perhaps they felt like all they were getting were closed doors for all their efforts.
Have you ever thought - "I'm just a small fish in a big pond. I can't do anything to make a difference." I just have too little strength too little time too little money too little education? I don't know the words to say - people won't listen to me. We're just weak and inadequate for what God is calling us to do.
You know, all too often, churches can be swallowed up in feelings of inadequacy too. We look around at all the other churches in our town and we start to do a little comparing. I must admit there are times that I have done this. We see churches that have a bigger attendance or a bigger budget or a bigger staff and we start to feel small and inadequate. We would be quick to say that we are facing too many closed doors not enough money and not enough people. We're overwhelmed and feel unable to fulfill the huge task of evangelism that God is calling us to do. So we end up doing a good job of "keeping the faith" but not "sharing the faith."
I believe that is how the church at Philadelphia must have felt. But Jesus wanted them to understand that He was able to work through their weaknesses and use them in a mighty way to bring glory to His name. He would protect them and give them the strength they needed.
That really is a theme that we can find all throughout the Bible. God uses what is weak and inadequate, small and young, and works through them to do some incredible things.
Which means that if you feel weak, inadequate, overwhelmed by what God may be asking you to do, you are probably the one that God can really use!
Listen to the promise God gives the church in Philadelphia: "I know that you have little strength . . . See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut" (Revelation 3:8). God was giving them an incredible missionary opportunity - to change the world for Christ. God would pave the way for them - opening doors and giving them opportunities to share their faith.
You see Philadelphia was located on a main road - leading from Smyrna on the coast of Turkey, through Philadelphia and on through the east of Asia Minor. The church at Philadelphia was located at a perfect spot to share the gospel literally to the ends of the earth as people traveled through.
And I believe that God has placed an open door in front of First Christian Church! And we don't have to go overseas to find that open door. We can find it within the circle of our family and friends - in our neighborhoods - in all the people who need to be won for Christ.
Just like Philadelphia, we too live in an unchurched and pagan society that desperately needs to hear the gospel. But we at First Christian Church may feel too small and inadequate to even begin to make an impact on the society in which we live. Jesus is standing before us today and saying: Look, I've given you an open door! Go forth and share the gospel. You'll find open doors of opportunity if you just get up and go rather than just sitting there and feeling like you don't have any power.
Interestingly, Philadelphia and Smyrna - the two churches that Jesus commends for their obedience, are the only churches out of the 7 who are still in existence today Truly, God opened the door for them and no one was able to shut it! They persevered and kept the faith and touched many, many lives with the gospel of Christ!
What will be your answer? What are the doors Jesus is opening for you? What opportunities of service and witness is God calling you to? And what doors are opening for First Christian Church? Are you able and willing to walk through them? Can you depend on God for the strength and the power? Can you believe and claim His promises?
Jesus is standing here today, waiting to come into your heart. Time and time again, He has opened the door and He is waiting for you to come through it. All we need to do is take His hand and He will lead us on. Won't you come now and take His hand?
3Adam Deibert, "Hold Fast Thy Crown", https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/hold-fast-thy-crown-adam-deibert-sermon-on-book-of-revelation-68152
http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/01/17/nearly-1-million-christians- repo rtedly-martyred-for-their-faith-in-last-decade.html