Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Death of Polycarp at Smyrna: How to Give Up Everything for Christ

Smyrna as you can see on the map was located on the Aegean sea and was considered the gateway into Europe from the middle east. Smyrna was known for it’s production of fine materials, in fact, Smyrna was known for production of frankincense and myrrh. Primarily for myrrh. And myrrh was a substance known to be used in burial rituals to cover the smell of the dead. Indeed, death would be associated with the church in Smyrna, because they would face severe persecution, and martyrdom.

Many Christians would be killed for their faith in the first few hundred years of Chrsitianity, many of whom lived in Smyrna. Most famous of all these martyrs was a man named Polycarp.

Polycarp’s crime essentially was refusing to worship the government. In ancient Rome it was expected that citizens would regard Caesar, the leader of the government as a god. Now, Jewish communities in the roman empire had gained an exception from worshipping Caesar. But the early Christian communities did not share this exception.

And the Jewish synagogues in Smryna were all too eager to blame controversies on the Christians in the area. And so the Jews were protected from death, and the Christians were burned at the stake and fed to the lions.

So Polycarp found himself staked to a tree. Normally they would be nailed to the post so they wouldn’t run. But Polycarp said no need, I won’t run, I’ll stay in the flames, for Christ.

Tradition tells us that they lit the pile of wood but the wind blew so hard it wouldn’t burn Polycarp properly. So finally they ordered a guard to go over and stab him with his sword, and Polycarp did at last die for Christ. That was 155 AD.

And today in the United States, 2023, we Christians today may also face persecution. Not necessarily being fed to the lions or burned at the stake, but, a salvation army soldier when to witness to a drug dealer, and he got a gun put to his head, and the trigger got pulled and he died. At a shooting in California about 10 years ago, people were asked are you a Christian and if they said yes they got a bullet. So yes, even death, and in China or North Korea or parts of the middle east, yes, death is a danger everyday. But in the USA, and Europe, today it’s like a few weeks ago, a woman was arrested and put in jail in the UK, because she was standing outside a planned parenthood facility, silently praying. She wasn’t even praying out loud, just standing there, praying in her head. And the police were called and she confessed to committing this crime of praying at this facility and she was taken to jail. Her name is Isabel Vaughan-Spruce.

But it’s not often in the United States something where the police will come get you. It’s more just a quiet pressure, all around us, to stay quiet, and just be nice and polite. Just a quiet pressure to not say anything. Because you might get criticized. People might think you’re a weird religious type. And it’s interesting how this keeps us quiet. And we’re afraid to speak up. That is the oppressiveness in our nation today I think for Christians is simply the quiet pressure to shut up. And I’ll tell you this, you have to train yourself to be brave and courageous. And you do so by speaking up. And as you speak up, your courage grows.

But I’ll also tell you this, as you refuse to speak up and stay quiet, the fear grows and pretty soon it’s harder to speak up. So do speak up. And yeah, it may cause controversy. But be ok with that. That’s your calling. Just speak up anyway. And be brave. Because then you’re training yourself to be brave. And that develops a pattern of behavior. And pretty soon it’s normal and easy. But at first it might be a little tough. That’s 2023.

But back in 155 AD Polycarp died for the truth. His words were striking, before the Roman procouncil Quadratus, when the procounsel asked him to deny Jesus.

Polycarp's last words: "Eighty and six years I have served Christ, and He has never done me any harm. How then, could I blaspheme my King who saved Me? ... I bless You for considering me worthy of this day and this hour that I may be among your martyrs and drink the cup of my Lord Jesus Christ."

And about 60 years earlier, John knew the body of believers would face persecution. And he received a message from Jesus Christ our savior, for the persecuted church. He wrote the words down that Jesus gave him, word for word, to the church in Smyrna. So let’s look at them. They say this…

“The First and the Last, who was dead and came to life, says these things: 9 I know your works and tribulation and poverty (but you are rich). And I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tried, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

11 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”

God is speaking to this church in a very intentional way. He says I was dead, and I’m alive again, and that will be you too. Recognize the long game. Recognize death is not the end. Do you understand that? You have to understand that if you’re going to be an overcomer.

Because the Christian life is full of trials and tribulations, but the greatest trial is the trial of physical death. All of us will face it one day. But for the church in Smyrna they are offered either turn away from Christ, or die. And that means I’m going to die before my time. We all want life. But could we die for Christ? That’s the challenge. Most of us here may never face that challenge. But we may face the challenge, will I speak up for Jesus or will I stay quiet? And we need to decide firmly in our hearts and minds to speak up boldly, even if our voice shakes. Even if we stutter a little. And even if we get in trouble. Or lose our job. Or even get arrested. And I think we need to have it in our minds and hearts, that if necessary I will die for Christ.

Would you die for Christ? Honestly, would you? You’ve got a family, you’ve got a wife or husband, a nice home, a good apartment, children even, you need to care for, would you still die for Christ?

That’s what would happen in this church in Smyrna. God says to them, “9 I know your works and tribulation and poverty (but you are rich).

Jesus says, I know. Jesus knows us. He knows what we go through. I received a word from God once, in my life, and Jesus said in that word, I know you. What a wonderful thing. Truly wonderful. God knows.

He knows their sorrow, their hard work, their difficulties, and their poverty. All three things Jesus personally experienced in His own life on planet Earth. So he really does know. And, he says, you’re really rich. It seems like you’re materially poor, you’re actually rich.

Do you understand that? Do you really? Material wealth. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, I’m richer than them all,, because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I have the life of God living within me, and if you really do know God and follow Him, and love Him, you’re richer than a billionaire. That’s a fact. If you don’t really believe that yet, that’s OK, you’ll get there. You’re still a bit brainwashed by the world and the flesh. But you will get there God willing.

Immediately after that Jesus says to them, “And I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

One of the chief problems for the church in Smyrna was the jewish synagogue there, they were denounced by this synagogue again and again and again. This group had protection from the laws of Rome, about worshipping the government. But, the Christians were an easy target, a new group, that were considered outsiders.

In fact when Polycarp was killed for his faith, many in the crowd were the Jews from the synagogue denouncing Him before the roman authorities. Very similar of course to the crucifixion of Jesus, brought before the romans, denounced by the pharisees and taken to the be killed in the end.

God tells them next: “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.”

Don’t be afraid. I’m with you. And here is what is going to happen, he says, “Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tried, and you will have tribulation for ten days.”

Who is throwing them in jail? Not the Romans, not the Jewish synagogue, no, it’s Satan, the adversary.

Same with us today, when we face persecution, it is not the people doing it, it is the spirit of the anti-christ, it’s Satan, attacking us. And our job is to bear up, stand firm, persevere, and God helps us. He protects us. He gives us the faith and courage to stand firm.

And often we come out the other side of the trials and difficulties victorious. And our enemies are defeated. We win the victory.

But it can also go another way. Often times when we face difficulties and persecutions if we hold close to Christ and love our enemies, the end of the ordeal is God preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemy. Our enemies are powerless, but can only watch as God blesses us, and it ends that way. That’s it. Victory.

But it can also go like this, like it did for Polycarp, or Justin Martyr, or Perpetua, or William Tyndale or of course the first martyr Stephen. Our enemies take us, bring us before the authorities, the authorities deem us guilty, and we are killed for our faith, or our enemies capture us and kill us.

That’s why Jesus says at the end, here is my command to you in this situation: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Some Christians today have this idea that if we pray and stay strong in the faith, we’ll have victory over all our problems, that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes that is how things go. But, it may come to that point where we must be faithful unto to death.

It reminds me of a woman who I met with several times when I was in upper Michigan, at a nursing home, she was a godly woman, had been a Sunday school teacher, very active in her church, loved Jesus, came to the Bible studies I would have at the facility, bishop noa home it was called, her name was Margaret.

But her last few years had been difficult. She had lost her eye sight, it kept getting worse and worse until she couldn’t see anything at all. Then she had a fall and broke her hip. And she was bed ridden, sickly, could barely function and she struggled in those days to keep hope. She just wanted to go home to be with Jesus. And I’m sure one day soon she did. But she had to be faithful unto death. That’s not the end we all dream of, left alone in a nursing home, going blind, broken hip, and feeling forgotten. But I believe, she was faithful unto death.

That is one way to be faithful unto death. And someday some of us here may fae the same challenge of the church in Smyrna, give your life for Jesus, be martyred for Jesus. We don’t know what the future holds for the United States of America. Christians are not particularly well respected in the USA. In fact by many, we’re viewed as backwards bigots and haters. Would it really a stretch to say that we might one day face persecution in the way of death? In 25 years or 40 years? Consider the changes that took place in the USA from the 1950s and 60s to today. I don’t think it’s a stretch.

So, I think it is wise, if we hear what the Spirit is saying to the church today. Be willing to be persecuted for the name of Jesus. And I want each of you to consider now, this question: If necessary, would I give my life for Jesus? If I was told by some governing authority or some group, you must abandon your relationship with Jesus Christ, or be killed, what would you say? That is the question.

My suggestion is this: Decide and commit in your heart today, not just your mind, but your heart: I will die for Jesus if necessary. I would rather be physically killed then give up my love for Jesus.

Because what would happen, if I gave up my faith in Jesus? What if I did renounce Him? Well, I’ve saved my physical life. But, I’ve condemned my soul to a eternity in hell. So we should see the eternal picture. If I die for Jesus, I’ll receive eternal life, and in the next life, it will be a table prepare for me in the presence of my enemies just like Psalm 23 says, because I’ll receive eternal rewards, they will receive condemnation. But if I give up my faith to keep my physical life, well, I’ve given up my eternal soul.