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Lessons from Smyrna: Faithfulness


Sermon statement

Be faithful in times of persecution





Text: Revelations 2:8-11

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. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are 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.

11 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. 


Context of the church in Smyrna [smur nuh]

According to scholars of Christian history in Asia Minor, the Christians initially lived in peace as it was regarded as a sect of Judaism until the second half of the first century. Judaism enjoyed a special place in Roman Rule especially after the Maccabees revolts. Jews are allowed to worship their One True God and are exempted from Emperor worship. They are to offer sacrifices to the Caesar, not as to gods but as to rulers. This changed during the rule of Emperor Nero who threw suspicions on Christians as the one who started the Great Fire in Rome.

The Jews themselves were increasingly unhappy to be grouped together with Christian whom they regarded to be following a false messiah. There began to have religious conflicts between the Jews and Christians. In Smyrna, the Jews were said to have ‘slandered’ the Christians (v.9) and exposed them to the Roman authorities who would imprison them or execute them (v.10). By distancing Christianity from Judaism, these Jews showed the Roman authorities that Christians are not under the exemption that Judaism enjoyed. The word ‘satan’ means ‘adversary’. One important point is Emperor worship.

There were many temples to the Roman Emperors in Smyrna. Smyrna was granted the right to have a temple warden by Emperor Tiberius. Indeed, the imperial cult permeated virtually every aspect of city and often even village life in Asia Minor, so that individuals could aspire to economic prosperity and greater social standing only by participating to some degree in the Roman cult. Citizens of both upper and lower classes were required by local law to sacrifice to the emperor on various special occasions, and sometimes even visitors and foreigners were invited to do so. City officials were so dedicated to the cult that they even distributed money to citizens from public funds to pay for sacrifices to the emperor (in, for example, Ephesus). It was almost impossible to have a share in a city’s public life without also having a part in some aspect of the imperial cult. Pressure on Christians to conform to such participation would have increased during Domitian’s reign (81–96 AD). Those refusing to participate were seen as politically disloyal and unpatriotic and would be arrested and punished according to Roman law (e.g., exile, capital punishment). This would explain why the Christians in Smyrna as being physically poor. The letters to the other churches did not suggest the other churches to be poor.


The Structure of the letter




angel of the church in Smyrna


Description of Christ


the First and the Last, who died and came to life again




I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are 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 are 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. 11 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


There is no rebuke in this letter. One other letter without rebuke will be the letter to Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13).

Persecution of Christians

The persecution of the Christians in Smyrna resulted in

·        Afflictions

·        Economic poverty

·        Imprisonment

·        Death

One of the greatest narrative that comes to us from Smyrna is that of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp lived to be about 87 years old and was martyred around the year 155.  His martyrdom served to be an example to the entire church. When he heard the Romans were planning to arrest him, he heeded his friends' advice and withdrew to a small estate outside of town. But while in prayer there, he had a vision. "I must be burned alive," he told his friends. When the soldiers arrived, his friends once more urged him to run, but Polycarp answered, "God's will be done."

After being escorted to the proconsul, Polycarp carried on a witty dialogue with his questioner, who flew into a rage and threatened Polycarp with death by fire. "The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little," Polycarp answered; "for you do not know the fire of coming judgment, and everlasting punishment, that is laid up for the impious. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will."

At the execution scene the soldiers began to secure him to the stake, but Polycarp stopped them: "Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails." He prayed and the fire was lit. In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, "Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong", which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old or that he may have lived eighty-six years after his conversion. Polycarp goes on to say, "How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt”. The second-century chronicler of this martyrdom said it was "not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace." The martyrdom, he added, was remembered by "everyone"—"he is even spoken of by the heathen in every place."

Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong… How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt

Calm demeanor. Courageous words. A death noted by unbelievers. One can't help admiring this type of martyrdom and feeling ennobled and encouraged by it. Unfortunately, not all martyr stories are so inspiring.

Mark Galli. May 19, 1997. “Is Persecution Good for the Church? - Christianity Today Magazine - ChristianityTodayLibrary.com.” 2013. Accessed September 24. http://www.ctlibrary.com/ct/1997/may19/7t6016.html.argues that “For the early church, the bottom line of martyrdom was not the pragmatic improvement of ecclesiastical life but the spiritual regeneration of the people of God. As Paul put it, martyrs "complete the sufferings of Christ." Or, more simply, martyrs redeem the church.”

1.      in martyrdom we see again the power and destructiveness of evil

2.      in the early church, the day of a martyr's death was celebrated as his or her "birthday," the day new life with Christ in heaven began.

3.      W. H. C. Frend noted of the early martyrs, "They were seeking by their death to attain to the closest possible imitation of Christ's Passion and death. This was the heart of their attitude. … The martyr was 'a true disciple of Christ,' one who 'follows the Lamb wheresoever he goes,' namely to death."

4.      the early church believed martyrdom was a sacrifice for other Christians. Ignatius is the first Christian martyr (apart from the New Testament writers) who left us evidence of his state of mind before his martyrdom. Thinking of his impending death, he wrote to the church at Ephesus, "May my soul be given for yours." He echoes Paul's sentiments in 2 Corinthians 1:6: "If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation."

Persecution of the church worldwide

In 2012, Christians in Nigeria, Iraq and Syria experienced the most violence, closely followed by those in Sudan and Columbia. In Eritrea, Myanmar, Kenya and Egypt the levels of anti-Christian violence were also extremely high.

North Korea remains the most nightmarish state in which to practice Christianity in the world today, taking out the top spot for the 11th year in a row. However, the 2013 Open Doors World Watch List also highlights the most significant persecution trend of 2012 as a rise of Islamism in every country that experienced the Arab Spring. This has resulted in massively increased pressure on large parts of the church in the Middle East and North Africa.

The trends are not uniformly gloomy however. In the Far East, with the exception of North Korea, the communist states have all marginally improved their treatment of Christians. Laos, Vietnam and China have all moved down the list.

World Watch List: Country Profiles

The countries listed below make up the current World Watch List - a yearly ranking of the top 50 countries where persecution of Christians is the most intense.

Click on a country to read about its current situation. 

  1. North Korea

  2. Saudi Arabia

  3. Afghanistan

  4. Iraq

  5. Somalia

  6. Maldives

  7. Mali

  8. Iran

  9. Yemen

  10. Eritrea

  11. Syria

  12. Sudan

  13. Nigeria

  14. Pakistan

  15. Ethiopia

  16. Uzbekistan

  17. Libya

  18. Laos

  19. Turkmenistan

  20. Qatar

  21. Vietnam

  22. Oman

  23. Mauritania

  24. Tanzania

  25. Egypt

  26. United Arab Emirates

  27. Brunei

  28. Bhutan

  29. Algeria

  30. Tunisia

  31. India

  32. Burma (Myanmar)

  33. Kuwait

  34. Jordan

  35. Bahrain

  36. Palestinian Territories

  37. China

  38. Azerbaijan

  39. Morocco

  40. Kenya

  41. Comoros

  42. Malaysia

  43. Djibouti

  44. Tajikistan

  45. Indonesia

  46. Colombia

  47. Uganda

  48. Kazakhstan

  49. Kyrgyzstan

  50. Niger


Historical Perspectives

·        There were about 300,000 baptized believers in Japan at the end of the 1500s, thanks to the efforts of Catholic missionaries. But in 1614, the Japanese emperor decreed: "The Kirishitan [Christian] band have come to Japan, not only sending their merchant vessels to exchange commodities but also longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country and obtain possession of the land. This is the germ of great disaster and must be crushed." When the fury was unleashed, crucifixion was the preferred method of execution. On one occasion, 70 Japanese were crucified upside down on the beach at low tide. As the tide rolled in, wave after wave, the water lapped at the Christians' hair, then their foreheads, and finally their noses and mouths, until all 70 were drowned. A relentless, ferocious persecution was carried out for years, so that by 1630 nearly all Christians had been killed or had committed apostasy. "Christianity in Japan had been destroyed," wrote missions historian Stephen Neill.

·        Though Nestorian missionaries had made significant inroads in Chinese society from 635 to the early 800s, a fierce persecution begun in 845 by Emperor Wu Tsung, an ardent Taoist, turned things around dramatically. Over a century later, in 987, a group of six Nestorian monks on a mission from Persia visited China to report on the state of the church there. When they returned, one said, "There is not a single Christian left in China." So fierce and thorough was the persecution that no one was left even to tell the stories of martyrdom.

·        In 1453, one of the greatest missionary churches in our history suddenly stopped doing evangelism because of persecution. Eastern Orthodox missionaries had evangelized all the Slavic countries (through Cyril and Methodius) as well as Russia. But by the mid-1400s, Eastern churches were doubly paralyzed: on the one hand, Islam had aggressively advanced through Asia Minor almost to the heart of Christian Europe; on the other, pagan Tartars were invading Russia. The capture of Constantinople in 1453 marked the end of the Eastern Empire and, as Stephen Neill noted, "the end of the great missionary history of the Greek-speaking churches."

·        North Africa was once the home of a vibrant Christianity and of the most influential Christians of the early church: Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo, to name a few. But with the coming of Islam to the region in the late 600s, a steady, quiet, but relentless persecution (military, economic, and social) over hundreds of years wiped the church out of many areas. In 700 there were about 30 to 40 Christian bishops in the Maghrib (northwest Africa). By 1050, there were 6 left; by 1300, 1. By 1400, none.

The fact is that some persecutions are successful. Some martyrdoms do not unify or purify or grow the church. Sometimes in some regions for long periods of time, the gates of hell prevail against the church.

Source: “The Silence of Our Friends - the Extinction of Christianity in the Middle East.” Spectator Blogs. Accessed September 24, 2013. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/09/the-silence-of-our-friends-the-extinction-of-christianity-in-the-middle-east/.


Is there persecution of Christians in Malaysia?

Malaysia is rankled as the 42nd most difficult country to be a Christian on World Watchlist 2013.

42 MALAYSIA (World Watch List 2013)


‘Islamic Extremism’ and ‘Organised corruption’ are the main persecution dynamics of Malaysia. Being Malay is seen as being synonymous with being Muslim. Citizens with other ethnic origins such as Chinese or Indian can be Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, whatever they like, but a Malay has to be Muslim. Prime Minister Najib Razak called on the people “to protect Islam, the faith of its followers, its teachings, Islamic law and infrastructure” to avoid disunity and exploitation of the ‘enemies’. Christians widely perceive that they have to be very cautious as their services are watched and published materials controlled by authorities; integrating converts is strictly forbidden. In reality, it is almost impossible for a Malay Muslim to convert to Christianity, still Muslims come to know Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Testifying about your faith to Muslims is forbidden. Officially, the Constitution provides for freedom of religion. However, in recent years, judges in the country have offered personal interpretations of parts of the Constitution. As a result, people who want to change their religious affiliation on their ID cards from Islam to anything else now have to go to Sharia Courts. Once converts are found, they are sent to a re-education centre, where they can be held until they agree to reconvert. Relief for the Christian minority is not to be expected. (World Watchlist 2013 website http://www.worldwatchlist.ca/world-watch-list-countries/malaysia/ .accessed 8 Nov 2013 )


·        Afflictions

o   Lack of approval and places to build places of worship

o   Lack of allocated burial grounds

o   Evangelism

o   Mission schools

o   Education system

o   Islamisation programs

o   Conversion issues

Lina Joy is a Malay convert from Islam to Christianity. Born Azlina Jailani in 1964 in Malaysia to Muslim parents of Javanese descent, she converted at age 26. In 1998, she was baptized, and applied to have her conversion legally recognized by the Malaysian courts. Though her change of name was recognized in 1999 and so noted on her identity card, her change of religion was not (for lack of a Mahkamah Syariah confirmation document); for this reason, she filed suit with the High Court in 1999, bypassing the Syariah Court (Islamic court). She later filed suit with the Federal Court in 2006. Joy hopes to live openly as a Christian; she was forced to go into hiding by the publicity surrounding her case.

In a majority verdict delivered on May 30, 2007, the Federal Court rejected her appeal. Her appeal was dismissed 2-1 by Chief Justice Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim and Datuk Alauddin Mohd Sheriff. The ruling stated that "a person who wanted to renounce his/her religion must do so according to existing laws or practices of the particular religion. Only after the person has complied with the requirements and the authorities are satisfied that the person has apostatised, can she embrace Christianity.... In other words, a person cannot, at one's whims and fancies renounce or embrace a religion."

The dissenting Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Datuk Richard Malanjum wrote that "Hence, in my view this is tantamount to unequal treatment under the law. In other words it is discriminatory and unconstitutional and should therefore be struck down. For this reason alone, the relief sought for by the appellant should be granted, namely for a declaration that she is entitled to have an identity card in which the word 'Islam' does not appear."

Legal recognition would have allowed her to have the change of religion noted on her national identity card; it would also remove the legal barrier to her marrying her Christian fiancé (marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men is forbidden under Malaysian law and under the Shariah/Islamic Jurisprudence; the non-Muslim man is required to convert to Islam under Malaysian law; Under Shariah, Muslim men are only allowed to marry “people of the book,” those who believe in One God, however with conditions and restrictions). In Malaysia, the Shariah Court alone has the power to deal with Islamic issues, including legal recognition for conversion to and from Islam. Conversely, the Shariah Court has no jurisdiction over those who are not Muslims. Joy, by her own admission, is no longer Muslim, but only the Shariah Court can legally recognize this. Conversion is not something unknown, and according to Muslim Lawyers Association spokesman Pawanchek Merican, "…In Negeri Sembilan, the Shariah court allowed 16 people to renounce Islam…"

According to a senior official in the National Registration Department (NRD), for the NRD to change the religion on her identity card would mean that the department would be officially declaring her an apostate, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Shariah Court. The jurisdiction of the Shariah Court over converts from Islam to other religions has been hotly debated by the Malaysian public in the past few years, with this and other court cases involving converts closely followed by the media. Joy is not the first person to apply for recognition of conversion from Islam; another woman named only as "Maria" by the BBC is also pursuing a similar case. In 2006, the Negeri Sembilan Syariah High Court in Seremban granted recognition for the conversion from Islam to Buddhism of Wong Ah Kiu (also known as Nyonya Tahir). However, being raised by a Chinese Buddhist family despite her Malay origins, Wong had never practiced Islam in her life and was deceased at the time of the ruling. (source: Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lina_Joy. Accessed 8 Nov 2013)

o   Vandalisation/Firebombing of churches

A total of 10 churches and few mosques have been attacked or vandalized since the 31 December 2009 decision in Malaysia vs. The Herald. Only one church has been seriously damaged and no deaths or major injuries have been reported.

Three churches in Kuala Lumpur were subject to an arson attack. One suffered considerable damage; witnesses saw two individuals throwing "something looking like a petrol bomb". As a result, the police stepped up security at all churches.

On 8 January 2010, preparations for another attack were found at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jalan Othman which is located about 1.5 km from the Assumption Church in Jalan Templer. In the early morning of Sunday, 10 January 2010, the All Saints' Church at Taiping and a Catholic Convent school were shocked with the discovery of Molotov cocktails near church grounds. Black paint was thrown at the Malacca Baptist Church in Durian Daun.

Sunday worship at targeted churches went on smoothly just a few days after the attacks. The Metro Tabernacle Church, which was badly damaged in the attack on January 8, held services at the Wisma MCA’s Dewan San Choon and churchgoers were said to be, "somber but joyful." Roughly 1,700 members of the Protestant church packed the hall for joint Mandarin and English services (source: Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_attacks_against_places_of_worship_in_Malaysia  . accessed 8 Nov 2013)

o   ‘Allah’ issue

·        Economic poverty

·        Imprisonment

o   Operation Lalang

Operation Lalang (Weeding Operation; also referred to as Ops Lalang) was carried out on October 27, 1987 by the Malaysian police to prevent the occurrence of racial riots due to the provocation by the ruling government towards DAP. The operation saw the arrest of 106 persons under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the revoking of the publishing licenses of two dailies, The Star and the Sin Chew Jit Poh and two weeklies, The Sunday Star and Watan. The political developments which brought this second largest ISA swoop in Malaysian history since the May 13 riots, were sparked ostensibly by mounting political tensions having strong racial overtones. According to the White Paper explaining the arrests, various groups who had played up "sensitive issues" and thus created "racial tension" in the country had exploited the government's "liberal" and "tolerant" attitude, according to the document. This racial tension made the arrests "necessary" and further forced the government to act "swiftly and firmly" to contain the situation, according to some individual's opinions. Operation Lalang resulted in the arrest of 106 people under the Internal Security Act. The detainees were kept at the usual place used for ISA detainees, at Kamunting Detention Center.

Although most of the detainees were released either conditionally or unconditionally, 40 were issued detention order of two years. Included were Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh plus five other party colleagues, a number of PAS members and many social activists. A categorization of the initially named detainees, numbering 97, gives the following breakdown: political parties: 37; social movements: 23; individuals: 37. (source: Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Lalang. Accessed 8 Nov 2013)

·        Death


Responding to Persecution

·        Denial

·        Flee

o   Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt (Matt 2:13-14)

o   disciples told to flee (Matt 10:23)

o   Paul over the Damascus wall in a basket (Acts 9:24)

·        Stay and Endure

o   Peacemaking (Matt 5:9; 5:38-48)

o   Overcome evil with good (Rom 12:19-21)

o   Accepting martyrdom for Jesus’ sake (Matt 16:25)

·        Appeal to Authorities- Legal Rights

o   Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 22 &25)

o   Exercise legal rights to be protected


Lessons from Smyrna: Faithfulness in persecution

·        Be at peace in the midst of storms – God is in control (Mark 4:35-41; Acts 27:25; Daniel 6:21-23; Revelation 14:12)

·        Keep our eyes focused on Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2-3)

·        Present suffering future glory (Rom. 8: 28-29)

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.




Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt

·        Details of the Work

Title:      Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)

Size:       62 1/2 x 49 5/8 in (160 x 127 cm)

Medium:              Oil on canvas

Location: (Ex) Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA (painting is still unrecovered after theft in 1990)

·        Background of the Work

During the 1630s, just when Rembrandt came to Amsterdam to begin his career in earnest, he painted what many consider his most dramatic works. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee exemplifies this type of work. Rembrandt chose a story from the Bible perhaps to show the seriousness of his artistic intentions. He came to Amsterdam fully intending to become known as an artist of only history paintings and portraits. However, he created this painting using a maritime theme. He demonstrated that he could combine a history painting with a seascape using a story from the New Testament.

This episode from New Testament would be one familiar to people of Rembrandt's time and one also, in all likelihood, appreciated by them. However, the dramatic tension instilled in the painting would provide the story with an entirely new and startling interpretation. This example of experimentation and risk-taking by the then twenty-seven-year old Rembrandt distinguished him from his peers and became the hallmark of his artistic progression.

·        Description of the Work

It is during an intense and violent storm that the disciples of Christ became terrified. The small boat upon which they are sailing is about to become engulfed in a wave on the Sea of Galilee. Christ, who is seated at the stern, is awoken and appears to admonish the disciples just as he is about to command the storm to stop. It is this miracle that Rembrandt depicts. The mast of the ship points toward two corners of the painting. This serves to divide the painting into two triangles. In looking at he left triangle, it can be seen that Rembrandt invests in that space certain elements of the event about to occur--the crashing waves, the boat high in the air and several paintings characters in various states of distress. However, he also places a dramatic yellow light that opens hopefully in the distance, drenching the edge of the clouds and the ships mainsail. The right side of the diagonal is darker and more obscured, yet to be bathed in the light, a striking example of Rembrandt's chiaroscuro style.

In an allegorical sense, the work also illustrates the power of nature and man's helplessness in its force. Numbered among the twelve disciples were fisherman and sailors; however, in this scene they are powerless and exposed to elements. They can only hang on. One holds his hand over the side while others futilely attempt to steady the boat, the man on the left putting one hand to his hat and the other to the rigging is said to have the face of Rembrandt. It has been theorized that Rembrandt's point in this is to put himself in the event through his imagination to inspire faith in the Biblical text, affirming its occurrence.


Faith in persecution arises from

·        Be at peace in the midst of storms – God is in control (Mark 4:35-41; Acts 27:25; Daniel 6:21-23; Revelation 14:12)

·        Keep our eyes focused on Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2-3)

·        Present suffering future glory (Rom. 8: 28-29)

Soli Deo Gloria







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