Building A Healthy Church: Facing Difficulty – Swimming Upstream

If you become a Christian in Laos, the communist neighbor of Vietnam and Cambodia, you likely will be “asked” to sign a fill-in-the-blank form. And it’s not a membership card at your neighborhood church.


The form reads, in part:


I, (name), who live in (location), believe in a foreign religion, which the imperialists have used for their own benefit to divide the united front and to build power for themselves against the local authorities. Now I and my family clearly see the intentions of the enemy and regret the deeds which we have committed. We have clearly seen the goodness of the Party and the Government. Therefore, I and my family voluntarily and unequivocally resign from believing in this foreign religion.

If you sign, you promise not to participate in this “foreign religion” – Christianity in every reported case – under punishment of law. If you don’t sign, you can expect humiliation, harassment, and persecution, including probable imprisonment and torture.


The document’s widespread use by Laotian officials has been authenticated by the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Religious Liberty Commission and other sources. Hundreds of rural Christians reportedly have been forced to sign the form in public, then compelled to participate in animistic sacrifices.[i]


One of the strongest instincts a human being knows is the urge to stay alive. To survive. Our urges to eat, to drink, to sleep, to breathe are related to our survival instinct. So are our sexual urges. And our tendency to fight, freeze, or flee when facing danger. Even panic attacks, which feel to people who suffer from them like they are about to die, hence the panic, are really activations of our fight/flight responses when no danger is present. We are wired to live, to struggle to survive.


So why do people worldwide every day persist in their faith in Christ when surrendering would save their lives? What keeps people faithful to Christ when facing death simply because they call him their savior? And what does any of that have to do with us living here in a free country where we don’t really know persecution the way followers of Christ around the world know it?


Turn with me to Revelation 2:8-11. This is the second of seven letters that open the often confusing Biblical book of Revelation. The first was the letter to the church at Ephesus that we looked at last week. This is the letter to the church at Smyrna. Smyrna was located somewhere around 50 miles north of Ephesus, and was a very similar city. At the time this letter was written, it boasted about 200,000 residents, quite large by ancient standards. Of the seven cities to which these seven letter were addressed, only Smyrna exists today, as the Turkish city of Izmir. Actually, all seven of these ancient cities were located in what is today called Turkey.


Smyrna had a famous stadium, a huge library, and the largest public theater in Asia. She claimed to be the birthplace of the great epic poet Homer. At the center of the city stood Mt. Pagus, which rose over 500’ above Smyrna’s protected harbor, and curving around that mountain was Smyrna’s most famous street, the Street of Gold. At either end of that street was a magnificent temple, one to the local version of the goddess Cybele, and the other to Zeus. At the top of the mountain stood Smyrna’s acropolis, called the crown of Smyrna. Her coins touted the city as “First of Asia in beauty and size.”


Smyrna was also the Asian epicenter of the Romans’ worship of Caesar and had an incredibly strong allegiance to Rome that went back to the earliest days of the Rome’s conquest and establishment of the empire. She was the first city in the ancient world to build an actual temple in honor of Rome and her Caesar. Smyrna’s large Jewish population was exempt from worshipping Caesar because Judaism was a monotheistic religion. Well, they were exempt, provided they didn’t make any waves. Christians ran afoul of both groups – Smyrna’s gentile citizenship because they refused to worship Caesar, something that might be tolerated elsewhere, but not here, and the Jews because Jews feared the Christians would ruin their exempt status toward worshipping Caesar. In Smyrna, Jews fiercely kept Christians out of their lives and places of worship. READ TEXT.


The Christians in Smyrna were incredibly poor. Because they refused to worship Caesar and weren’t Jews, people wouldn’t do business with them. They were slandered. Far from being considered pillars of the community, they were seen as rabble, as people who upset the status quo, who refused to toe the line the rest of the citizens had no concerns about toeing.


Haddon Robinson, who for years served as the teacher of the daily 15 minute “Discover the Word” radio program, once wrote: “Several years ago, I helped lead a tour in Turkey of the churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation. On the last night, we were in the city of Izmir and were having dinner at one of its nicer hotels. Our guide had been in the United States at least ten years and spoke English flawlessly. As we were eating, he began to ask us questions, serious questions about the Christian faith. I said to him, “If you’re a follower of Islam, and if you died tonight, would you be sure you could stand in the presence of Allah?” “No,” he replied. “There are five things that Muslims should do. I’ve done two out of five.”


Then we began to talk about the gospel. We talked about it long into the night, and before we left I said to him, “Look, you’re serious about our conversation, I know. It would not be faithful of me not to ask you if right now you’d like to put your trust and confidence in Jesus Christ.” He said to me, “You don’t know what you’re asking me. Do you know what would happen if I did that? If I announced it to anybody, my wife would leave me. My family would disown me. My boss would fire me. I may want to leave to go back to the United States, and the government would not give me an exit visa. I’d give up everything. You go back home tomorrow. I would not expect you would support me, and I would starve to death in my own culture.” As far as I know, he did not trust Christ that night. But there are people who have made that decision and suffered all of that loss and endured those hardships because they are Christ followers. If you think that Romans 8:28 – “All things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are the called according to his purposes” – is a promise that you’ll have a middle-class life in a lovely little church in a nice little town where you may even get a pass to the country club, you’re wrong. Paul did not promise that.”[ii]


The same was true in Smyrna. And the question this letter asks of us is a huge one: “How much is Jesus worth to us?” Would you follow Christ, if following Christ meant abject poverty because no one was willing to do business with you anymore? Would you follow Christ if people told slanderous, untrue stories about you because of your status as a Christian? Would you follow Christ if it meant that you could be physically abused and tortured, imprisoned, killed? We don’t show up to worship if the weather is bad, or if the weather is really nice, if there’s anything “better” happening. How much is Jesus worth to us? Would you risk it all, even life itself, to follow Jesus?


Look at how Christ identifies himself in V. 8. He’s actually quoting Isaiah 44:6 here. “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” He takes upon himself a title that had been used to describe God in the Old Testament. He’s saying, “I am the eternal one. I am bigger than life itself. I existed before the universe began and I will continue long after it ends.” Our minds are finite. They are limited. Some more limited than others. All that we know, all that we can even conceive of, is finite – it has a beginning and it has an end. So it stands to reason that we would be wired to hold on to this life, and to a good life in this life if at all possible, with everything that we have.


But as the Eternal One, Jesus says to us, “There is more to reality that you can see. Don’t hold on so tightly to this world that you lose sight of life with me.” Followers of Christ still live in and die in this world, but we no longer belong to this world. Our citizenship is now in the Kingdom of God. That is our home. This world is both important – Christ died for it, and transient – we will not spend the whole of our existence here. St . James asks the question “What is your life?” and then provides this answer: “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).


C.S. Lewis describes our lives in this way: “All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” What are you and I living for? The mist, or the waterfall? The cover and title page, or the whole story?


Not only is Christ the Eternal One, he is also the Risen One. He is the One who “died and came to life.” As the Eternal One and the Risen One, Christ is greater than death. And death itself cannot remove us from his hand. Now, look at V. 9.


Not only is Christ greater than anything we can or will face in this life, he also knows our suffering. He knows what we are up against. And there is nothing that will happen around us, in us, or to us that he is not infinitely familiar with. But he isn’t just AWARE of what we face. He has EXPERIENCED every bit of it. In Hebrews 4:15, we read, “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.”


One of the things that Becky and I have learned in the seven years since Zeke died, and in the 15 years since Corin died, is that there is a special bond between parents who have lost their children. And that bond exists not because we all lost our children in the same way, but because we know what it feels like to welcome a new life into the world as a parent, and love that life more than you love your own, and then see that life snuffed out. There’s a sense of, “Our circumstances are all different, but we’ve all in some way experienced the same thing.” This person knows the desperation, the anguish, the terror I’ve felt. They get me.


How comforting is it to know that Christ knows our suffering, not just in the sense that he sees it, is aware of it, or even that he’s aware AND CONCERNED about it, but that he has experienced it. In Christ, God put human skin on and became a part of this fallen, broken world. He knows temptation. He knows brokenness. He knows pain. He knows fear and anxiety and terror. He knows it all.


And yet he calls us to faithfully face it. Look at V. 10. God never promises us that our lives won’t contain their fair share of trials. He never promises us an easy path through life. I don’t know where we got the idea that life in Christ means health and wealthy and prosperity, because that isn’t a biblical idea. In fact, Christ promises us the opposite. Jesus says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).


He doesn’t promise us an easy life, a wealthy life, an always happy life, or even a long life. What he promises us is that he is always with us and we do not face this life alone. He promises us his presence directly, in a special way through the Holy Spirit, and he promises us his presence through his people, through the body of Christ, his church. We have Christ, and we have his people. We are NOT alone, no matter what we face.


What he promises us is life. Look at V. 11. While the first death may threaten our existence right now on this earth, the second death cannot touch us. He never promises us that physical death will not touch us. He promises us that we are eternally in his hands. Nothing can separate us from his love. And that includes facing torture and death simply because we follow Jesus Christ, the trouble we face in life BECAUSE OF CHRIST. But even then, when Christ himself is the reason we are suffering, we are safe in his loving embrace.


In Romans 8 St. Paul asks the question “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” And then he answers his own question: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”


This isn’t a promise that we’ll be able to conquer the challenges we might face climbing the corporate ladder, or in building comfortable and easy lives here on earth. It’s a promise that when we face trouble because we follow Christ, we will always conquer. In fact, in Christ we are more than conquerors. Why? Because death itself cannot separate us from him. We are eternally secure in his hands. And because of that, there is no challenge on earth that we will not face for him. There is no price on this earth that we will not pay for him. There is no dangerous place to which we will not go for him. There is no risk he can ask of us that we will not take for him, because we know that even if that risk costs us our lives, we will go on with Christ in his kingdom. Christ followers are always risk takers. How much is Jesus worth to us?


“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.’

[i] Baptist Press (10-9-00 article)

[ii] Haddon Robinson, from the sermon “Love Keeps Going”