March 23, 2002
The first-century churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia faced persecution from without and a sense of their own weakness within. The Lord Jesus wrote tender words, encouraging them to endure hardship and promising eternal rewards to those who overcome. As we study these two letters, Alistair Begg shows how God works through our weaknesses and trials, giving us the strength to be faithful and the confidence of knowing we are secure in His kingdom for eternity.
Sermon Transcript: Print
May I just take a moment to express my thanks not only for Hugh’s kind words just now in introducing this final Bible reading this week but also to each of you for the privilege of being your waiter and having the opportunity this week of going in the kitchen, and getting the food, and bringing it out, and laying it before you, hopefully in a relatively digestible fashion. And it is a great joy and a peculiar privilege, and I’m thankful for it.
I’ve also enjoyed the privilege of being on this wider team and of renewing old friendships and making new friends too. And I thank those of you who in the course of a few days have come up and said hello, meeting folks from Yorkshire and some from Scotland and people from all over the place. I don’t mean this in any… I just mean this: that one of the great earthly joys to me is the fact that God in his goodness, in the last nineteen years, living as a resident alien, as a missionary to America—and I mean that, truly—he has allowed me not only to maintain links with my homeland but also to deepen those links and to establish new links. And the older I get, and the longer the time elapses, and the greater the distance seems, I never want to take these things for granted. So thank you very, very much indeed.
It’s also been a lovely part of the time to move around and meet my colleagues in ministry, particularly other pastors from around the country, and to sense the depth of our fellowship in the gospel. And on Sundays, as we gather for prayer in the morning hour around eight before our first morning service begins, I’ve trained my elders now, and although they don’t know where half the places are, they can be heard praying for places all over the UK and for the churches there. And it’s good this week to be able to add some more.
Now, obviously, too, in a crowd like this, there are some characters. And you know who you are. And this week, one in particular will stand out for me. On Sunday, after I completed the Bible reading, he was one of the first up to me. He greeted me, he shook my hand, and he told me that the talk had been, in his estimation, long and rather boring. And so I thanked him and hoped that I wouldn’t see him again. But on Monday, he caught me in the coffee line, and he said that as he listened to a second one, that it was totally incomprehensible. Yesterday, I was expecting him, and he said that he has apparently been at every Word Alive there has been, and in his humble estimation, I’m the worst speaker that they’ve ever had.
Now, I’m fairly self-assured. I’m a waiter, that’s all. I go in the kitchen. I get the food. I’m not responsible for force-feeding it. But he unsettled me a wee bit. And I went in the team lounge, and I said, “Hey,” you know, “has this fellow been talking to any of you?”
“Oh, no,” they said. “No.”
And I said, “Well, does anybody know who he is?” And somebody knew, and they were able immediately to put my mind at rest, because they said that he’s a fairly vacant fellow and that he’s totally unable to form opinions on his own, and he simply goes around the place repeating what he hears everybody else saying.
So let’s read from 2:8:
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
“‘These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you[’re] rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you[’re] about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of 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. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.’”
And then in 3:7:
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
“‘These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on … earth.
“‘I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
There’s hardly a week passes for me in the States when somebody doesn’t come to me and say, “Do you miss your home?” And when I tell them that I do, they always want to know why. Sometimes I give them a sensible answer, and sometimes I’m tired of sensible answers, and so I just play with their mind a little bit. From time to time, I tell them that I miss certain things. For example, I miss Dad’s Army.
Now, that then usually closes them down, because not being willing to say, “What’s Dad’s Army?” but wanting to seem like they really are comprehensive in their understanding of the world, they say, “Mm-hmm!” and then just move off down the line. But for those of you who are of a similar vintage to myself—the younger people here haven’t a clue what I’m talking about—but for those of you who were born a little earlier, you may miss Dad’s Army as well. And I confess that whenever, in some remote place in the colonial lands, I hear that familiar tune, I dive for the remote-control button and bring it up, just to see Captain Mainwaring once again—just to hear that fabulous wee song as the program goes out, you know. Let’s sing it together, shall we? Ah, they’ve gone. Okay. Well, there’ll maybe be another year. But “Mr. Brown goes off to town on the 8:31, and half past…” Twenty-one? See, I told you, you were a very intelligent group. “And half past three he’s home for tea and ready with his gun.”
There’s something very endearing about that program—especially, I suppose, those who had lived through the difficult days of the war. The idea that somehow or another, a ragtag group of characters such as was assembled there could ever be responsible for giving a sense of confidence to the community that if ever there was an invasion, they would be able to run to the South Coast and, with a variety of broomsticks and bits and pieces, be able to withstand the advances of the Evil One! And we were supposed to go to bed at night feeling, I suppose, a little more confident that if ever this was to happen again, at least we would have this group ready for action.
And that has made such an impact on me that sometimes in my staff meetings now, when a member of staff will excuse himself to go, I find myself saying in my mind, “You may, Godfrey.” Sometimes, I say it out loud! They just ignore me. Confronted by the peculiar challenges of pastoral ministry, feeling totally inept at the challenge before one, and feeling just really incapacitated, I hear the words of that Scotsman. I forget his character, but I can hear him in the back of my mind, going, “We’re doomed! We’re all doomed!” And some days, as I fulfill the captain’s role, I’m glad to hear the sergeant at my side saying, “Don’t worry, Captain Mainwaring. Don’t worry, Captain Mainwaring.”
You say, “Well, so you finally decided, one, to take your jacket off, and then two, to give up on Bible exposition. And now you’re just going to take us on a tour of the BBC archives. Is that it?” No, actually. No. There is, at least in my own strange mind, a peculiar link between Dad’s Army and Smyrna and Philadelphia. Because when I read and reread the description of the people in Smyrna and Philadelphia, they look a lot like a kind of ragtag group, a sort of Dad’s Army. If you see the factors that are described—their poverty and their lack of strength and their living, as it were, under the gun of persecution—we might be forgiven for thinking that a group like this or places like this presumably have little prospect of doing anything significant for God in their day.
But of course, when we’re tempted to think that way, it is because we’re thinking far too much of ourselves and far too little of God. We’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that God is roaming the earth looking for the strong and the powerful and the mighty, whom somehow he needs in order to set forward his purposes in the world. And in actual fact, the reverse is the case: “For when you consider your calling, brethren, not many were mighty, not many were noble, not many were of striking importance.”
We discover that with us, as in Smyrna, as in Philadelphia, as in Corinth, as throughout the world, God has chosen deliberately, purposefully, the weak things of the world to confound the strong. He has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise. And he has given us a message which in itself is apparently total foolishness, so that when people are gripped and changed by it, their faith may rest not on the coercive arguments of the facile abilities of a man or a woman’s mind but may rest in the very power of God.
And it is surely strategic and good that we end here in these two churches, before many of us return to circumstances that we may feel are similar, not in terms of the extent of persecution but in terms of looking around at our congregation and saying to ourselves, “You know, we look a lot like Dad’s Army here, to tell you the truth.” Have you considered the possibility that your personal weaknesses and the weaknesses of your congregation may be the very key to your usefulness in the hand of God?
I’m not talking about sin now, but I’m talking about our falterings. I’m talking about our personalities. I’m talking about our sense of weakness and poverty of spirit and so on. And we’re tempted all of the time, you know, to try and make out that we’re different from what we really are. Because if we could present a good front, you know, then maybe people will be impressed with that and drawn to listen to the message. But the fact of the matter is, we want them to be drawn to Christ. And nothing exalts and magnifies Christ more than the awareness that came to the apostle Paul, despite all that he’d known of the dramatic revelations of God: “My strength is made perfect in weakness. Therefore,” he says, “more gladly will I glory in my weakness, that Christ’s power may rest upon me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Now, I hope that will ring through as we consider these two churches. If you noticed, as we read them, Jesus has no words of condemnation for them. In identifying their circumstances, he issues no complaint. He confronts no problem. He’s done that in each of the other messages, as we’ve seen. But even in his confrontation of problems and his issuance of warnings, I hope we’ve understood that the Lord Jesus comes in his warnings as an expression of his grace—as an expression, if you like, of his pastoral care over the flock. Because we must keep in the forefront of our minds as we consider the things that Christ is saying to the churches that, as Paul tells the Ephesians, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word … to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
I’m reminded of a book by Michael Griffiths some years ago, on the church, entitled, Cinderella with Amnesia. It was a fabulous title! I’m not sure anybody had a clue what it was about when they looked at it, but it was still a great title and a wonderful book. And the thesis was that the Lord Jesus comes to us as we feel ourselves to be like Cinderella, sitting among the ashes and uninvited to the ball and inferior to the fancy sisters that are around us, and he comes and picks us up and fashions us into the beautiful bride of his purposes.
Now, as you look at the text, consider how he introduces himself—the Lord Jesus does—to this fellowship here in Smyrna. Once again, the designation fits with the opening vision in chapter 1. What you have here is essentially, in verse 8, a repetition of 1:17: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last,” the one “who died and came to life again.” He introduces himself as the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is from everlasting to everlasting. Kingdoms rise and fall. Dynasties crumble. Rulers fade away from the stage of world history. The wind blows over their grave and remembers it no more. But the Lord Jesus is without beginning and without end. He was there before we were born.
Before the hills in order stood
Or earth received [its] frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.
Unnumbered [blessings on] my soul
[Your] tender care bestowed,
Before my infant heart conceived
From whom [these blessings] flowed.
For he precedes us and will follow us. When they walk through the graveyard of the local church, and they see our names on a stone, and they say, “I can’t really remember that person,” the Lord Jesus will be as real and as alive and as vibrant and as committed to the ongoing of his kingdom and the building up of his people as he was on the days when we had the privilege of treading these pathways.
One of the features of growing old is that we can become a little morose, you know. We can begin to start singing “Abide with Me,” and not just at the final of the FA Cup, you know. We’re having our morning coffee and looking out, and we just watched the news or read the paper, and we’re starting to sing, “Change and decay in all around I see.” And our wives say, “Oh, shut it up, would you, please?” And we’ve just become miserable and mournful and always looking over our shoulders: “Oh, it was terrific back then, you know. Those were the days, you know. I remember when…”
Well, memory’s good. We said that. But don’t allow it to be chain for you. And if your grandpa is chained to something in the past, get a big pair of those chain cutters, and chain him off, and buy him the live worship from Spring Harvest 2002 and a Walkman, and stick it in his ears, and see if he can dance. Because it is right for us to look around and say, “Yes, we do see change and decay,” but that the point of the hymn is “O thou who changeth not, you abide with me. Walk with me today. Talk with me today. I want to live with you today. I want to know your companionship.”
And that, of course, is the promise that is here in this self-designation: “I am the First and the Last. I am the Beginning and the End. I was before you, and I will come behind you.” The psalmist says, “You hem me in—behind and before; you[’ve put] your hand upon me.”
Psalm 121: “You watch over my coming and my going from this time forth, and even forevermore.” And the reason that the Lord Jesus designates himself in this way, presumably, to the beleaguered people in Smyrna is because this, more than any other part of the designation from the opening vision, is a truth that these dear folks in Smyrna needed to hear. This was something that they could, if you like, cozy up to and derive comfort from.
It was an encouragement to them to know that he is “the resurrection and the life.” Faced with the prospect of suffering, even to the point of death, the Smyrnas… (Incidentally, I just invented that word last night. ’Cause I was thinking of the Smurfs when I was reading this, and then I said, “I’m going to call these people the Smyrnas.” Like Glaswegians—people from Glasgow—Smyrnas are people from Smyrna.)
So the Smyrnas—and you heard it here first—were strengthened, then, by this great Easter truth. They would have been happy with our hymn:
Death cannot keep its prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!
[And] up from the grave he arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes.
They didn’t appear to be triumphing. Indeed, the kind of thing that was coming home to them and back to them, even through their children, as a result of the calumnies within the community was such that they felt themselves to be anything other than triumphant. If they took a hat out that had different names on it, there wouldn’t be many mornings that they would say to their wife, “Hey, give me that hat that has ‘Conqueror’ on the front of it,” you know. “I’m going to wear my ‘Conqueror’ hat today.” Because most of the time, they would be going around feeling much different from a conqueror.
Therefore, to know that they have been included in Christ, to know that he who was from the beginning to the end and all points in between, who had been dead and who was alive again, that he was their Savior, their companion, and friend would make all the difference to their day and all the difference to the challenges they faced. Tempted they may have been to sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” but then they’d catch themselves and say, “Yes, but Jesus knows all about my troubles. And we will fight till the day is done.” For “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, no, not one! No, not one!”
Now, it is this Lord Jesus who identifies their afflictions there: “I know your afflictions.” Living in an environment of persecution, the enemies of their faith came not only from the Roman authorities but also from the Jewish community. Their daily lives would have been filled with little and large expressions of antagonism—an antagonism that came their way primarily because they refused to bow the knee to Caesar. They were living as aliens in a strange land. And you will notice that he mentions four dimensions of their trials. I’ll just draw your attention to them.
First of all, “poverty,” he says. “I know your afflictions. I know your poverty.” It’s quite striking, because Smyrna was a very prosperous city. Its inhabitants were apparently proud of its abundance. Somehow or another, these believers were not sharing in the abundance of the commercial opportunities of their community. Now, presumably, it was because, given that they were prepared to take their stand for the Lord Jesus Christ, they would then be bypassed in some commercial ventures.
I remember my father, when I was a very small boy, having those conversations with my mother when they did the washing up. They’d close the kitchen door so you couldn’t hear them, and you always went up to the kitchen door so you could hear them. And I never really fully understood what it was about, but it seemed to be a time of tension and of difficulty in his life. Even when you’re a small child, you pick up on those things, don’t you?
Later on, when I was more mature and my father and I communicated about everything, he was able to tell me that when he worked in Ayrshire, he found it impossible amongst the farming community to get any business at all, because he didn’t shake hands the way the Ayrshire farmers shook hands. And his boss told him that if he would become a member of a secret society and learn to shake hands properly, that he would get all the business that he ever wanted. And he said, “Give me another territory that is an inferior territory, and I’ll get more business out of the inferior territory, shaking hands the way I shake hands, than in this potentially vibrant territory, shaking hands the way you want me to.”
And it’s quite interesting that the fellow didn’t just give him his books and send him up the street. But he thought my dad would fail. And my dad told me that he got on his knees, and he said, “Lord Jesus Christ, you are stronger than all of these forces. Therefore, if it please you and for your name’s sake, glorify yourself in the production of business in this territory that nobody’s been able to make a go of before. And let it be clear to me and to everybody else that, Lord Jesus, you are able to produce riches even out of poverty.” And God did. God did.
Well, let’s just notice that they were poor. Particularly a word of caution for the American church, I think. The people from Smyrna, if they were to come back in one of the Doctor Who telephone boxes or whatever it was and drop down into the average scene in the States—and perhaps it would be true here in the UK—they would be rubbing their eyes in mystery, looking at the people as the words came out of their mouth, selling to the folks a gospel of wealth and a gospel of prosperity and a gospel of “If you will follow Jesus, everything will fall in line for you, and you’ll get all these things.”
Last week, before I left, in reading in the New York Times, I discovered that in Africa, the vastest growing congregations are congregations where they have bought in to this “name it and claim it” wealthy philosophy that has been promulgated out of the American context. And Africans are coming in their droves to these congregations in the hope that they may become like their self-styled “pastors,” who have been able to give evidence of the fact that God wants you to be prosperous and to be strong and to be mighty.
Well, it wouldn’t have sold in Smyrna, you know. And it would have been hard for the apostles to get ahold of it. And the idea of a Galilean carpenter with twelve young, ragtag men somehow doesn’t fit that message. But still we’re tempted to live the lie that if we can show the world that we are strong, that we are powerful, that we are mighty, that we can make an impact, then they will listen. No, they won’t! “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And indeed, the problem in one of the other communities was the very problem that they were rich. They regarded themselves as in need of nothing. They didn’t need anything to see. They didn’t need any clothes. They had everything they needed. They were living with the curse of complacency. Not in Smyrna! Jesus wanted them to know that even though they were poor, they were actually rich in the things that really matter. Because a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.
Also, they were confronted not only by poverty but by slander. Refusing to take part in emperor worship, that would have been jumped on by their Jewish enemies. Because the Jews were exempted from the sacrificial obligations, and therefore, they were able to exploit their animosity towards these Christians by constantly bringing them before the Roman authorities and pointing out that these horrible Nazarites—these Nazarene people, these followers of Jesus of Nazareth—they weren’t doing what they should! Children would come home from school telling tales, presumably, of the fact that their friends were calling them certain names; that they were saying things that were untrue and unkind and unhelpful, the kind of words that wound and sting and linger in our minds. For although, at school, with false bravado, we say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” the fact of the matter is, here we are, fifty years on, and whatever punch you ever got on the nose, whatever elbow you ever got in the ribs, whatever kick you ever got in the shin has long since departed, but I guarantee you there are things that were said to you in your schoolyard that you have never ever forgotten. They wounded you. They stung you. The dreadful impact of a slanderous tongue.
Let me just turn that one section removed, as it were, and say this: let us beware ever of falling down on that side of things.
If all that we say
In a single day,
With never a word left out,
Were printed each night
In clear black and white,
It would make strange reading, no doubt.
And then just suppose
Ere our eyes should close,
We should read the whole record through,
Then wouldn’t we sigh,
And wouldn’t we try
A great deal less talking to do?
And I more than half think
That many a kink
Would be smoother in life’s tangled thread
If half what we say
In a single day
Were to be left forever unsaid.
That’s why the New Testament has a great deal to say about the tongue and about slander, while those who are on the receiving end of it must learn not to respond in kind. These people, these Jews, they thought they were at the synagogue of God. “But no,” says Jesus. “they’re at the synagogue of Satan,” because he’s the liar and “the father of lies.” Therefore, their condemnation is clear.
Thirdly, their affliction was represented in something that was about to befall them. Slander and poverty they were presently experiencing, but the next two was something that they were about to face—the prospect of prison, verse b. What the apostles had endured they were going to endure. It’s interesting, it says that “you will endure this for ten days”: “You will suffer persecution for ten days.” I think it’s more than likely that that figure, as with other numbers, is there as an illustration of, or a representation of, “You’re going to experience persecution for a limited time.” Now, it may be literally ten days. I’m not going to argue the case. But it just seems strange, doesn’t it? Just kind of strikes you as strange: “And you will experience persecution for ten days.” A little bit like the weather forecast, you know: “For the next few days, and then it’s going to stop.” It may be, it may not. But in keeping with all of the other use of numbers in the book, there’s a chance that that is so.
The animosity against them was so great, the persecution so fierce, that prison would in certain cases give way to death. And these people, he says, are going to have to prepare themselves for the possibility of martyrdom.
Those of you who have done church history will know that here we are, in Smyrna, at the sight of one of the most famous Christian martyrs throughout all of the ages—namely, Polycarp, who was martyred as the bishop of Smyrna. The people who are able to do the chronology on it reckon that Polycarp was at least a member of the community at the time that this letter was written and would have been received. Therefore, he, along with others, if he wasn’t by this time in leadership, would have been sitting and listening as the letter was read. I wonder, did he pay particular attention to it? I wonder, did it ever cross his mind? “I tell you [that] the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution.” And Polycarp sat out there. I wonder what he felt.
Because history records that in February of AD 156, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna by this time, who had been encouraged by those who loved him to go away into hiding because of the antagonism of the Roman authorities, was ferreted out of his hiding place. The officer that was given the responsibility of bringing him back to the office of the proconsul, said to him on the way, “Polycarp, why don’t you just recant? Have respect to your age, Polycarp. You don’t have to go through this. What harm can it do,” he said, “to sacrifice to the emperor?” Polycarp said no.
Brought before the proconsul, in the amphitheater, he was urged again to recant: “Swear, and I will release you. Revile the Christ.” Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years now I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How, then, can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?” That’s the answer.
The proconsul persisted, “Swear by the genius of Caesar. I have wild beasts. If you will not change your mind, I will throw you to them.” Polycarp replied, “Bid them be brought.”
Says the proconsul, “As you despise the beasts, unless you change your mind, I make you to be destroyed by fire.” And infuriated members of the crowd, Jews and gentiles alike, began gathering wood for the fire, shouting, “Burn him!”
And Polycarp stood by the stake. He said, “Don’t tie me to it. You don’t need to.” And he stood by the stake as they lit the fire underneath him, and he prayed, “O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received a knowledge of thee, I thank you that you have thought me worthy this day and this hour to share the cup of thy Christ among the number of thy witnesses.” And as the wind blew, it was blowing the flame away from him, adding to the length of time that it was taking him to burn. And a soldier, presumably with some sense of compassion, reached forward and ran him through with his sword in order to protect him from further misery.
Well, that seems long ago and far away, doesn’t it? And even as we’ve watched these videos throughout the week of the persecuted church, of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, living with the prospect and reality of poverty and slander, of persecution, of imprisonment, and of death, we find ourselves saying, “There’s little likelihood of that happening in Bolton in the near future. I’m not sure that much of this has been going on in the west of Scotland. I’m not sure that if you go down to Cornwall, you’re going to find great marauding bands searching out the local clergy, herding them off, and grabbing a few of their congregation on the way, tyrannizing them, persecuting them, slandering them, and so on.”
Why not? Well, you can think about that, in part, for your homework. Certainly, we have no reason to wish upon ourselves persecution. Certainly, it would be wrong to contrive anything in order somehow or another to assuage a guilty conscience that, given that this person over here is taking such a beating, maybe if I can get at least a kick in the seat of the pants, I’ll feel a little better about the circumstances and be able to empathize more.
Tozer said that the twentieth-century church was, in his estimation, the best-disguised set of pilgrims that the world had ever seen—that the twentieth-century church had managed to blend so perfectly with the surrounding culture that it had lost any possibility of ever being on the receiving end of this kind of animosity and persecution. What he would have thought of the church in the West at the threshold, now, of the twenty-first century is conjecture. And I say this with great guardedness, but say it, I think, I must: as long as ministers in the pulpits trim their faith and their sermons to the prevailing theological wind, as long as we dilute the hard sayings of Jesus so as to make them “seeker friendly,” as long as we are prepared to blend with the culture, to laugh at its jokes, to share in its immorality—in short, as long as we choose to live with compromise—we need fear no possibility of slander, imprisonment, and death. We can, frankly, just relax. But if we are prepared, in our pulpits first, to lead our people in a strong stand, in a world of pluralism, concerning the exclusivity of the claims of Christ; if we are prepared in our pulpits to lead our people, in a dirty world, to take a strong stand concerning the purity that is represented in following Christ; if we are prepared in our pulpits to take a strong stand in leading our people concerning the sufficiency and authority of the Scriptures, then we may want to keep the letter to Smyrna handy.
Face it folks: we’re benign. We’re a sideline. We’re a darkened building. We’re a crumbling notice board. We’re a funny little group of people at the Mothers’ Union, spending time at our daffodil tea and eating large lumps of shortbread. You say, “You got a problem with shortbread?” No, I like shortbread. “Problem with daffodils?” No, I like daffodils. “Problem with the Mothers’ Union?” Absolutely not! I love mothers. They want to have a union, that’s fine. I don’t know why I picked on them, and I’m sorry. What I’m just saying is that, O God, come and show us how to do it, and show us what to do, not so that we may bring upon ourselves this experience but so that we may cut ice, so that we may live on the edge, so that we may push things out, you know. It’s all about leadership.
Pastors, do you want to lead your people, or do you want to be liked by your people? Do you want to teach your people, or do you want simply to give them porridge with lots of sugar? Do you want to train the flock, or do you want to tickle the flock? Come on! Let’s help each other. The days are short. The night comes, “when no one can work.” And down through the corridors of time, our gaze settles on this little Dad’s Army in Smyrna: “I know your situation,” he says. “Remember, I’m the First and the Last. I’m the resurrection from the dead. I know that you’re poor. I know that you face slander. I know that you’re experiencing imprisonment—about to. I know that death stands at your door. And here, I want to tell you two things,” he says.
“Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.” Jesus told his disciples, “You don’t need to be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. The only one you need to fear is he who can cast you down into hell.” Paul refers to his death—as he writes his swan song in 2 Timothy, he says to Timothy, “The time for my departure is at hand. I’m soon to be poured out like a drink offering.” The word for departure is análusis. It’s the same word that would be used for striking camp, folding up the tent, and going to your permanent residence; the same word that would be used for unyoking oxen at the end of the burden of the day; the same word that would be used for the weighing of anchor and heading home into the safety of the harbor. And this is Paul as he looks at death. He says, “I’m going to be unyoked. I’m going to strike camp. I’m going to my permanent residence.”
Jesus has made of death a narrow, sunlit strip between the goodbyes of yesterday and the hellos of tomorrow. A wonderful picture in the old days, in places like Greenock or Londonderry in Northern Ireland, when the husband had gone off to Canada or to somewhere else in North America, leaving behind his wife, preparing the opportunity over there, finally sending word, calling her to come. And you have these wonderful black-and-white pictures that you can find in books, and you can see the tender at the jetty in Derry. And you can see this picture, and there are no words; there need be no words. But you look at the faces of the family—the father and the mother—as they bring their daughter now to entrust her to the tender, and all of the sadness as she gets on this tender and goes out across the ocean. But of course, that sadness on this side is more than matched by the sense of expectation and joy at the far side. For there is one waiting there for her to welcome her with open arms. And in all of the joy of that reunion, it mitigates the sadness of that scene which they’ve left behind.
This is death for the Christian. Sure, it’s going to be sad to leave. None of us wants to get a… If somebody was putting a bus party for heaven together right now, we’d probably, none of us, would be diving for the front seat. We understand that we love life, and we love these things. We don’t want them to be our chains; we want them to be our guides. But we’re looking forward to the day when we will go, and we will see him, and we will be made like him. That’s why Paul said, “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” “Don’t be afraid,” he says.
Woody Allen, the American playwright and cynic, says, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; it’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens.” And one of the great opportunities for us in contemporary culture is to live in the face of these circumstances with a whole different dimension because we have been caught up with him who is the resurrection and life.
“Do not be afraid,” and then, also, his word of exhortation is “Do be faithful.” “Do be faithful.” “Be faithful, even to the point of death.” Providence is a soft pillow. All the days of our lives are written in his book before one of them came to be. The future comes in at the rate of sixty seconds a minute. How long do I have to be faithful for? Sixty seconds. Right? And then for the next sixty seconds. But don’t get alarmed that you’re only seventeen, and now somebody just came and told you that you’ve got to be faithful to the end, and the end looks like it’s a hundred years away. Don’t worry about a hundred years away! Just worry about just now. Just finish your cereal, for goodness’ sake! Be faithful! You understand?
“What is your life?” It’s a vapor. It “appears for a little while and then [it] vanishes.” Therefore, seize the day—not in the way that Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society. Not that Sartre stuff. Not that existentialism. Not that looking at the figures of the past and saying, “These men are all gone and into oblivion, and you will be gone and into oblivion one day. Therefore, seize the day, because the only thing you have is now.” Well, there is a sense in which the only thing we have is now. But we know, as we said the other day, that history is not cyclical, that we are moving towards a destination, that we’re going to see Christ. Therefore, we seize the day not because there is no tomorrow but because there is a tomorrow. And we seize the day in light of all of our tomorrows.
So the Christian life is distinct in this way, and that’s why we can be faithful. That’s why we understand, when we were at school, we learned all those quotes from Hamlet and Macbeth and so on. We came home impressing our mothers by letting them know that, you know, life was “a poor player” who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” And she said, “Have you made your bed?” And we said, “No, no, no, no. Wait a minute. ‘It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.’” And she said, “Make your bed.”
And what a sad and horrible way to go through your life. “A tale told by an idiot”? Is that your life? No! No, it’s not your life. All of our days and all of our deeds are good for something. They’re good for someone. No matter where it is we go, no matter what it is we do, we do it all to the glory of God. Let’s beware of thinking in compartmentalized terms. Let’s beware of thinking that we’re at Spring Harvest. That’s a kind of spiritual venture, but we’re going back to the bank, which is, of course, a completely secular venture—that “we’re here on Sunday, and we brought out the file, brought it out, put it in the laptop, and brought it up on the screen: religious file, religious activities, religious thoughts, religious aspirations. Take that file out. Insert another file. Now let’s go back into the world where we live the rest of our lives.” Not at all!
In the film Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell’s sister, Jenny, is guilty of that kind of compartmentalized thinking. That’s why when he shows up late for the Bible class, having been at a rugby practice or something, she chides him. You remember? Some of you have never even seen the movie. It’s probably twenty years ago. Oh, how ancient I feel! But anyway… Go and rent it and buy it and watch it with your grandchildren.
She says to him, “You know, Eric, I think you’re compromising things.” (Here I’m putting words in her mouth.) “I think that you are allowing your interest in other things to pervert your interest in the things that really matter. Because after all…” And she gives him a kind of dose of the shorter catechism. She says to him, “You know, Eric, God made you for himself”—the inference being, “If you would get ahold of that, Eric, you’d stop this silly rugby stuff and running up and down on the playing fields here at the university, and you’d get in here and help me gather up these hymnbooks and do holy stuff.” And you remember how he turns and he says to her, “Aye, Jenny, he made me for himself, for China. I know that. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
There is an inherent danger in coming to an event like this and listening to the things that are said by people like myself, who essentially have our collars turned around the wrong way. If we’re not very, very careful, we can fall foul of suggesting to the gathered community that there is a way to really serve God, which is to do it the way we’re doing it; and then, of course, if you want a kind of secondary way to serve God, then you can just get on with your business and be a good, faithful mom and a loyal school teacher and so on. However, if you’re prepared to get really serious, then, you know, you can come and join the ranks of the funny people.
Well, you’re welcome to join the ranks of the funny people. We’d be glad to have more. But the fact of the matter is, be faithful now. Be faithful where you are. My mother, I never heard her pray out loud. Even when we had prayer times in our home, she never prayed. She was a very quiet lady. But she was a great baker. She was a wonderful listener. She had a fantastic sense of humor. She prayed for her children. And God took her home at the age of forty-seven. “I have fought the fight, I have kept the faith, I’ve run the race. Now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.” That’s what he says: “Don’t be afraid. Be faithful. And realize that there is a crown that awaits you.”
Well, where are we? When did this start? All right. Well, let’s get right on to the back straight. The bell has more than rung for the final lap. It rang, and I never heard it. But anyway… Here we are on the back straight. Someone says, “Well, let me ring it again for you, and a little louder!”
Okay, I’m going to give you the cheat sheet on the church at Philadelphia then, all right? These are the things you buy—the Shakespeare plays—in WHSmith when you don’t want to read the whole play; you just read the wee book. Well, I’m going to give you now—this is going to be the wee book version for Philadelphia, and then we’re done.
You will notice, if you’re careful, that there are distinct similarities between what is said to Smyrna and what is said to Philadelphia, because there are distinct similarities between the two. There is no complaint offered in Smyrna; there is none offered in Philadelphia. He says, “I know that you have little strength, [but] you[’ve] kept my word and [you] have not denied my name.” Now, we could spend time there, but we really did quite a bit on that yesterday, remember, when we thought about the previous church. They were true to his name, and they did not forsake the faith.
Also, you will notice that Philadelphians were like the Smyrnas in that they were opposed by the Jewish population. Jesus tells the church that if it will boldly march through the door that he’s opening for them, then there will actually be converts from among this opposition party. “These people who are slandering you, these people who are opposing you”; he says, “if you will seize the opportunity that I am about to present to you, if you will be bold in your proclamation, if you will not crumble in fear, if you will be faithful to the calling, then I want you to know that by the power of my Spirit and the might of my Word, those who are your opponents will become your friends and your family.” And in Philadelphia as in Smyrna, they were confronted by the threat of future tribulation.
And these people in Philadelphia, recognizing that the storm clouds are gathering, might have been tempted simply to circle the wagons, to sound the retreat, to convince themselves that given all that they are confronted by, this is not a good time for evangelism, this is not a good time for outreach. And so the risen Christ urges them with the promise not to spare them from suffering, you will note, but to uphold them when they face it.
Just last evening, a friend gave me a copy of Richard Bewes’s little book on Revelation. It’s really helpful. I wish he gave it to me on Saturday. And so do you! But anyway, when I went to my bedroom last night and I read it, I said, “Maybe I could just get up there and read this tomorrow. It would be briefer and probably a lot more helpful.” But anyway, I read it, and I decided I would steal the best from it and then admit it. And so, here it is.
In the section where he deals with Philadelphia, he points out very helpfully that there are three symbols mentioned in these verses. And he just gives a sentence or two on each. Let me try and follow his example.
He draws attention to “the key” in verse 7—“the key,” in verse 7, which is a symbol of Christ’s authority. “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David.” You need to check for homework in Isaiah 22:22 to get a context for this. This key, which Jesus alone is able to have, if you like, like the steward in Isaiah 22, fastened to his shoulder—Jesus is the one who is able to wield this key, which opens the way to salvation. We’re about to sing,
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the [door]
Of heaven and let us in.
Why? Because he is the one “who holds the key of David.” It opens the way to salvation.
And it is the same key that opens the door to service—which is, of course, what he is saying to these dear people, what he is saying to us this morning: “This key opens the door in to salvation and opens the door out to service.” So the key—symbol one of the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ—goes in the lock, which is in the door. Symbol number two: “the door,” a symbol of the opportunity for the follower of Christ. The key, which Jesus holds, to salvation and to service opens the door of opportunity to each of us. And once we have walked through the narrow gate that leads to life, we discover that it is a life of service.
“I beseech you, brethren,” says Paul in Romans 12, remember—“I beseech you …, [brothers and sisters], by the mercies of God, [to] present your bodies [as] a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable [to] God, which is your reasonable service” of spiritual worship. I remember Eric Alexander preaching on that so powerfully when I was just a young man. And he was uncharacteristically using alliteration, and I never forgot it. I wrote it down, and it was anchored from that point. But he said that the sacrifice that we offer, then, in response to the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross was a living, lasting, logical sacrifice. The word in Greek is logikos, which is where we get, in the King James Version, “your reasonable service,” “your logical service.” There is a logic that attaches to this.
C. T. Studd understood it when he wrote in his diary, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I could ever make for him could ever be too great.” The door of opportunity swings before us. The Philadelphian church had the chance, it would seem, to spread the gospel far and wide into the interior of the Roman jurisdictions—the good news of God’s grace, of God’s kingdom. The door is open. They may go through it. They must go through it.
There is actually far more freedom of opportunity, I think, in the United Kingdom than there is in the United States for the gospel. You can still, in schools, conduct services, can’t you? The local minister can go in and actually say something. So pray for him that he will say something, rather than just dribble down his chin! Because the games teacher is standing at the back. He’s a young man. He takes them out on the field. He has questions about life. He’s working out his existence. And he stands at the back, and he listens, and he wonders if the establishment, if religion, if this Christian thing has anything to say. And some poor soul comes in and just utters a bunch of benign platitudes, and the children are all sitting like this, waiting for him to go, and the games teacher makes a mental note: “Forget that. It’s not there. I must go to the bookstore. Perhaps there is something in Zen Buddhism after all, something that has a bit of a bite to it—a good Stilton-cheese religion, not this dreadful American-cheese stuff, this wimpy cheese. No, no.”
You say, “Well, that’s not very nice.” I know it’s not very nice, but not everything has to be nice. If the cap fits, wear it! We’re not talking about being bombastic. We’re talking about being imaginative. We’re talking about being creative. We’re talking about having our one foot in the Bible and our other foot in the culture and being able to blend our understanding of what’s going on around us with our understanding of the biblical text. And if we do it imaginatively, humbly, sensitively, creatively, not only will children listen, but the school teachers will take us aside afterwards, and they’ll say, “Excuse me? I’d like an opportunity, if I may, just to talk to you, because my mother-in-law’s in the hospital, and she has cancer, and frankly, I have no explanation for what’s going on, and I have no hope in the world. Perhaps you could tell me. It seems to me that you have direct contact with Jesus, who is apparently the resurrection and the life, the First and the Last.” And you say, “Well, yes, I actually do. And I’ll be glad to have coffee with you.”
Symbol one: “the key.” Symbol two: a door. Symbol three, and the final symbol: “a pillar.” The key represents the authority of Christ, the door represents the opportunity of the follower of Christ, and the pillar is a symbol of the believer’s security in Christ. God is putting together a temple. It’s not a man-made structure. It’s not going to appear in this world. The Jews were constantly focused on Jerusalem and their temple: “Oh goodness, our temple fell down! We have to build it again.” But no, Jesus is building with different materials. He’s building a new temple. The component parts are Christian believers. They are the “living stones,” built together, as Peter says, “into a spiritual [temple],” being put together in such a fashion that we will be the habitation of the Spirit of God—Ephesians 2:. If you like—I may say so reverently—God is working with a gigantic, spiritual Lego set, and he is putting together this amazing building and this amazing creation.
And in this phenomenal mixture of metaphors, we discover that as we look forward, we’re going to be a pillar in the park. I said to myself this morning as I worked it out, “I don’t know how to put all these metaphors together.” Now the people are saying, “Well, I’m going to end up a pillar in the park. I’m going to be a pillar in paradise. I’m going to be a sponsored pillar. I’m going to have names all over me, written on the back and the front of my shirt. I’m going to have the name of God. I’m going to have the name of the new Jerusalem. I’m going to bear the name of Christ.”
Well, it’s a metaphor, of course! What prospect, to become a pillar? Lot’s wife became a pillar. That doesn’t appeal! What he’s saying is, “When I build this temple, I’m going to build it with people. And if you will be an overcomer, if you will take the key—saved, serving—if you will walk through the door of opportunity, then you can look forward to being a part of this.” It’s a wonderful picture!
In the course of pastoral duties in Scotland, in the years when I was assistant to Derek Prime (two of the most formative years of my life and for which I will eternally be grateful), I visited all sorts of people—people who had had strokes. And one lady in particular stood out because of the loveliness of her face, and the kindness of her eyes, and the fact that she’d been so dreadfully impaired by the stroke that she was now unable to verbalize anything at all. But she still could get some kind of melodic line out. And her sister, who knew her very well, and her brother-in-law were usually present when I would visit. And on one occasion that I was there, she managed to get out the little melody line that went [imitates singing].
And her sister said, “Do you know that one?”
I said, “Yes!”
She said, “Well then, let us sing it.”
And so we sang, the three of us—dreadful trio:
We are building day by day,
As the moments pass away,
A temple that this world cannot see.
And every victory won by grace,
Will be sure to find a place
In that building for eternity.
And here was this lady, stroke-ridden, paralyzed down the one side, constantly having her mouth dabbed by the loving care of her sister, unable to verbalize it, but in her heart and through her eyes recognizing that through this experience of suffering, that’s where she was going.
Well, our time is more than gone, isn’t it? Let’s recap: an open door, standing for the church’s opportunity; a key, a symbol of Christ’s authority; and a pillar, a picture of the conqueror’s security.
I want to say this before you all run off for your children: some of us have got more behind us than we’ve got in front of us, timewise. When you’re five and your birthday comes around, it seems forever, doesn’t it? I’ve been trying to work out why that is, because, you know, I’m slightly fearful of becoming fifty, I think. I’m sure many of you have done it, and it’s not to be worried about. But anyway, it’s beckoning me in a few weeks, as I told you, and it seems to be coming awful fast. When you’re five and a year goes by, 20 percent of your life went by. When you’re fifty and a year goes by, 2 percent of your life just went by. And I wonder if there isn’t something in the biological clock, you know, that registers this, and that’s why it makes us think, the older we get, that time is actually passing quicker. It’s going at the exact same speed, but we have this perception of it running through our hands.
And some of us who have been born a little earlier and lived a little longer are tempted to say, you know, “Well, we’ll just turn around and leave it to the group that are coming behind. After all, look at all these wonderful young people here. They have got so much, you know, in front of them.” Yeah, but we must run all the way to the end! We must continue. There’s no sitting in the grass. There’s no throwing ourselves down on the field. Are you prepared to give yourselves again unreservedly to walk through the door of opportunity; to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, anywhere, anytime, anyone, I’m yours”; to take those little choruses from your childhood and sing them as you’re driving in the car:
Lord, send me. Here am I, send me.
I want to be greatly used of thee,
Across the street or across the sea.
Lord, send me.
I mentioned that my favorite film is Chariots of Fire. The best part of Liddell’s story is not in the film. Perhaps in another film it will be. When he came back to Edinburgh after winning gold and setting a new world record in the 400 meters in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, they asked him what was the key to his success in the 400 meters. He thought for a moment, and then he said, “I run the first 200 as fast I can, and then, with God’s help, I run the second 200 even faster.” But someone said, “Well, I’m in the second 200.” Yeah, so do you think you get to slow down? Speed it up! Speed it up! There are people coming behind!
And you young people, what are you going to do? What are you going to do? What are you going to do with yourselves? That’s the great question. On the evening that Liddell left Edinburgh, he left from Edinburgh Waverley Station. And when he was settled on the train and put his case in the compartment, he came back out to the door, and he let down with the leather thing… Remember when you used to jam your fingers in the wee brass bits that you hooked it on, on the holes? And your mother said, “Careful!” then you said, “Ah! Oh!” Right?
So he let it down very carefully; he’s a sensible chap. And now he’s going to China. Now he was fulfilling this other part of the picture. He had a great vision before him—the vision of Revelation 7. He had seen a company that no man could number that would gather from every tribe and nation. And he realized that in the giving of his life now… And what a wonderful fellow he was in the sporting world, in that missionary school, and so on! What an impact on the lives of so many people! But in giving his life now, he was doing so in order that he might see the glorious vision of the risen Christ, the expectation of the Lamb in all his glory, brought to fruition, and in part by his willingness to walk through the door of opportunity.
And history records that he put his head out through the window, and to the vast gathered crowd he shouted, “Christ for the world, for the world needs Christ!” And then he led them in the singing of the hymn,
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run,
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
He had walked in to salvation and was walking out to service.
Do you remember where we began? “The Bible reader,” the letter said, “will expound the text but will also focus on Christ revealed in the text.” I’ve tried my best. Let us “consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Let us run with patience the race marked out for us, setting aside every sin—the things that trip us up and entangle us—looking unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith.
Father God, write your Word upon our hearts. Make the Lord Jesus increasingly precious to us, and give us a heart of compassion. Forgive our limited vision. Forgive our benign mumblings. Banish from our recollection what is unkind, unhelpful, untrue, unclear, unnecessary, and may we retain only and all that you desire for us from your Word and by your Spirit. For we pray in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.
 Jimmy Perry and Derek Taverner, “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?” (1969). Lyrics lightly altered.
 1 Corinthians 1:26 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Corinthians 1:27.
 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:25–27 (NIV 1984).
 Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (1719).
 Joseph Addison, “When All Thy Mercies, O My God” (1712).
 Henry F. Lyte, “Abide with Me” (1847).
 Psalm 139:5 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 121:8 (paraphrased).
 John 11:25 (NIV 1984).
 Robert Lowry, “Low in the Grave He Lay” (1874).
 George C. Hugg, “No, Not One!” (1895).
 Tertullian, Apology, chap. 50. Paraphrased.
 See Luke 12:15.
 John 8:44 (NIV 1984).
 The following is a paraphrase of The Martyrdom of Polycarp.
 John 9:4 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 10:28 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 4:6 (paraphrased).
 See 1 John 3:2.
 Philippians 1:21 (NIV 1984).
 Woody Allen, Without Feathers (New York: Random House, 1975), 99. Paraphrased.
 See Psalm 139:16.
 James 4:14 (NIV 1984).
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.5.
 Shakespeare, 5.5.
 Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (Warner Bros., 1981). Paraphrased.
 2 Timothy 4:7–8 (paraphrased).
 See Revelation 2:13.
 Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1847).
 See Matthew 7:13–14.
 Romans 12:1 (KJV).
 C. T. Studd, quoted in Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 145. Paraphrased.
 1 Peter 2:5 (NIV 1984).
 See Genesis 19:26.
 Fanny J. Crosby, “We Are Building.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 M. W. Spencer, “Lord, Send Me” (1893). Paraphrased.
 See Revelation 7:9.
 Isaac Watts, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” (1719).
 Hebrews 12:3 (NIV 1984).
 See Hebrews 12:1–2.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.