Fear and Heart Health: The Letter to Smyrna – Revelation 2:8-11

fear and heart health 1I hate Halloween, but it isn’t for the really spiritual reasons you may be thinking. I know its history, but what truthfully bothers me much more is the fact that people think that at that time of year it is ok to scare people – and I hate being scared! People jumping out from behind bushes in the dark is not something I find funny. Call me crazy, but I have been in war in the Near East twice, and had a man die in my arms – and I don’t really think most of the gory stuff is the least bit funny – but I admit that I am a bit of a prude.

Let me ask you: “Have you ever been scared nearly to death?” I have had a number of very bad flights that were quiet scary, and that made my work in missions quite difficult for a few years before I found ways to manage the fear. It is true, what they say, “Sometimes the Lord calms the storm. Sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child.”

Fear does strange things to people.

Louis Pasteur is reported to have had such an irrational fear of dirt and infection he refused to shake hands. President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison were so intimidated by the newfangled electricity installed in the White House they didn’t dare touch the switches. If there were no servants around to turn off the lights when the Harrisons went to bed, they slept with them on. – Jane Goodsell, Not a Good Word About Anybody, Ballantine.

Some fear is irrational:

Five-year old Johnny was in the kitchen as his mother made supper. She asked him to go into the pantry and get her a can of tomato soup, but he didn’t want to go in alone. “It’s dark in there and I’m scared.” She asked again, and he persisted. Finally she said, “It’s OK–Jesus will be in there with you.” Johnny walked hesitantly to the door and slowly opened it. He peeked inside, saw it was dark, and started to leave when all at once an idea came, and he said: “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me that can of tomato soup?” – Charles Allen, Victory in the Valleys.

The problem is that not all fears are unfounded. I have personally known people in the Near East who were brutally killed because of their faith – and that is always a nagging concern in the back of my mind when I travel to some areas. Those who have served near ISIS, Boko Haram and Hizb’allah know that some fear probably yields prudent behaviors. It can also play tricks on your mind. Michael Pritchard was the one who said: “Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed.”

In this lesson about heart health, we want to talk about fear – and the devastating effect it can have on our witness when we let it drown our faith. We want to look for a few minutes at the church is Smyrna, now modern Izmir on the eastern edge of the Aegean Sea. It was to that church that Jesus wrote a truth…

Key Principle: When fear presses us, it can have a chilling effect on our faithfulness.

It is possible for even long time believers to show more care for comfort than for Christ – and that is a devastating choice! Drive forty miles north from Ephesus to a port city that sat upon a cliff above the sea, with a long slope of land down to the port. The upper city appeared as a crown above the harbor of Smyrna. There was a first century church there, and they were afraid of the rising tide of persecution, so Jesus addressed their heart condition:

Revelation 2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 9 ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until 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 by the second death.’

The church of Smyrna was gripped with apprehension – that much is very clear from the letter. Jesus made clear that He knew their physical troubles and material needs (2:9). He knew the persecution by other religious people (2:9). Instead of promising the church a FREE RIDE in the coming days – Jesus warned the people of greater coming persecution. He said:

• New imprisonments will be ordered (2:10)
• New troubles are ordained to arrive (2:10)
• Some would be martyred (2:10)

Let’s face it, none of us wants to be trapped in a village with no way out as ISIS advances on us. The sheer brutality of the group terrorizes people even before they arrive! Yet Jesus told the church to prepare for trouble, and yet do it with a healthy heart.

We aren’t on the field now, and the enemy isn’t beheading believers in the next village. We hurt knowing that some are facing that, but it isn’t us. How will a letter like this help us if we are not in that kind of persecution? In short, it will help us hear from Jesus on the subject of confronting fear with faith. Before we look at Jesus’ response, let’s set our mind on truth – away from the distractions of the fallen world.

My God is on the throne. Jesus is the All-powerful, unstoppable King. His reign is assured and His power un-assailed. He cannot be defeated and His cause cannot be thwarted. With a mere nod, He opens doors no man can close and closes doors no man can open. Myriads of the Heavenly Host stand ready for His command. He faces the wicked one without even a fleeting moment of doubt and fear. He has no equal. His love has no bounds. His mercy pierces the darkness and His kindness can turn back His enemy’s advance. In other words: Because My Savior is alive and in control – to live by worry is to live against the facts of reality. It is to live the lie swallowed by a fallen world – that God is somehow equaled by and unable to stop evil. He is not. It will last until He has finished allowing it to show whatever facet of Him He desires creation to see through this complex self essay. A day will come when God will blow a trumpet from Heaven and shout “Stop!” and the reign of evil will be permanently ended. That is the truth. That is reality.

John covered that ground in Revelation 1 when He introduced the Savior, and we should as well. When John saw the Risen Christ, and heard His command to write, Jesus’ description was as follows:

Revelation 1:5b “…To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. 7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

With His power and coming clearly in mind, listen to what Jesus said to answer the problem of FEAR in heart health…

Heart Health Practices:

First, as we mature we must train to face all of life with a good sense of the history from whence we have come.

Our history will lend us a story of courage. We have to learn carefully that any persecution with the understanding that we serve the One Who suffered even death and then defeated it – so be courageous in Him (2:8). 2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this…

Suffering changes people. The persecution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn left him better, while the suffering of Elie Wiesel left him godless, and many would say, embittered. Alexander suffered horribly in the Gulag, but left with statements like:

• Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.
• A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy and nothing can stop him.

He learned from his troubles that there was a purpose to life. Even as Joseph of old, life came together in the darkness of a prison.

Wiesel learned the men are cruel and must be throttled by other men. He said: There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

The difference between the two men wasn’t simply the lessons they took from unfair mistreatment and suffering. The difference was in who they met in their imprisoned state. One of them faced Jesus from his Orthodox past, the other never met Him.

Listen to Solzhenitsyn:

It is true that millions of our countrymen have been corrupted and spiritually devastated by an officially imposed atheism, yet there remain many millions of believers: it is only external pressures that keep them from speaking out, but, as is always the case in times of persecution and suffering, the awareness of God in my country has attained great acuteness and profundity. It is here that we see the dawn of hope: for no matter how formidably Communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.

If you were to read the middle of God’s speech to Habakkuk in chapter 2, you would notice something strange. In chapter 1, Habakkuk told God He was unfair to make the prophet watch the demise of his society into lawlessness and immorality. God answered by telling the prophet that He was paying attention, and that He was outfitting the cruel and heartless Chaldeans to come and crush the people. Habakkuk couldn’t understand how God could use someone as evil as the Chaldeans to discipline Israel. God told a story and then showed an example in a violent desert storm. The story was about utter destruction and terror the invaders would bring. Out of the ashes of that destruction, picking through the rubble, God made a startling claim. In that very context, He said:

Habakkuk 2:12 “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by injustice! 13 Has not the Lord Almighty determined that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? 14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

What? God’s glory will somehow be identified from the ashes left by invaders and butchers? Yes. You cannot stop God. You cannot crush His message among men. You cannot dismiss from the human mind the possibility that there truly WAS a Creator of us all. His after image will still linger after He has been dismissed from the room.

We must make disciples that recognize the Jesus faced death and defeated it. Paul told Timothy as he faced his own that God “rendered inoperative” death. It didn’t mean what it used to mean. It wasn’t an exit from LIFE, it was an exit from the PHYSICAL STAGE into the spiritual – into the place where reality can be seen and understood without the encumbrance of the fallen flesh. As long a physical life is the prize, people will abhor suffering and feel beaten by it. When Heaven is larger than earth, and the prize is walking with the Savior through it all – the reality of suffering will give way to the realization that the prize cannot be take from a follower of Jesus.

Second, we must learn and we must train young believers to recognize that suffering is not beyond the radar of God.

Don’t forget that whatever we go through, Jesus is fully aware of it – so consciously include Him in ever moment of the journey (2:9). 9 ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)…

We must get back to the basic truth that God is working to make His people ready to be the Bride for His Son. His preparations are deliberate, and His goal is certain.

If you believe God exists to make you comfortable, then you will find Him very absent in your discomfort. If you believe God exists to make your life run smoothly, then you will find God very absent when your life hits a rocky patch. If you believe God exists to make you happy, then you will find God very absent when your heart is broken and your tears are flowing. BUT, if you believe (as the scripture teaches) that God’s goal is to make you holy, so you can bring glory to Him, then in the midst of a trial you will feel His arms around you! ~James MacDonald.

I would add to MacDonald’s list this truth: If we believe the prize is physical life, we will be terribly disappointed as we see God step back and allow martyrdom for the faith. If we recognize the true prize is intimacy with Jesus – a deliberate and profound inviting of His presence to go through every moment with us – we will see their deaths as powerful and painful reminders of the darkness of the lost world, the depth of the snare that has scarred men with such cruelty in their hearts. At the same time, we will note the depth of faith and reward for those who invited Jesus to take their lives and invite them into Heaven – even as His Father did Him.

Note that Jesus told the people of Smyrna that feared the coming suffering and persecution they were, in fact, quite RICH. We must recognize that we have exchanged, even among quite mature Christians, the notions of blessing and curse. A blessing is not that which makes the physical world my friend and life here easy. Rather, it is that which drives me toward an intimate walk with God. A curse is that which allows the illusion of self-dependence – a life where my successes bear me along on their shoulders of victory. With each step of self-dependence, I am being drawn deeper into the delusion and curse that I can “do life” on my own.

Here is a truth that requires spiritual maturity and depth to comprehend…Troubles that drive us to our knees, when they cause us to open up and invite Jesus into our painful and momentary walk, are the doorway to a deep blessing from God and are His gift. It is not the suffering that is the gift; it is the door to response to pain that shows God working in us, the beckoning of His Spirit to open anew to God’s innermost touch to sustain us. That is a blessed moment. That is where the seeds of pain yield the fruit of blessed embrace of God. The prize of life is that deep connection. At the end of life, that is Heaven’s embrace. In our sojourn on earth, this is the closest experience to Heaven. It often comes at first during times of pain and suffering, not times of “victory” in the physical world.

Third, we must learn to be wise and perceptive about the claims of men.

We must learn to perceive times when we encounter the Father of Lies who has planted those who will claim life and relationship with God when they have none – so be wise (2:9b). 9b “…and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Many claim spiritual life and heritage. They can show in their long institutional past the hand of God – but not in the present of their life and movement. Yesterday’s victories don’t guarantee today’s surrender, nor do they yield today’s intimate walk with God. Let me say it plainly: Some people, denominations and groups are faking it. They HAD a walk with God – a time in their past when they were led by men and women of real and sustained faith – but that was THEN. Now they are simply rehearsing the old days and hoping God won’t notice.

Jesus said some claimed to represent the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – but they didn’t. They were storefronts from Satanism and used God’s name blasphemously, rather than out of a pure heart to honor Him. We must be wise – for the storefronts are still open and many of them have steeples on them. The way to see what people are is not their ads, their facades or the doctrinal statements leftover from a previous generation – but by reckoning where they are TODAY in their grasp of the truth of God’s Holy Word. Some of the greatest schools in America once stood for the Gospel, and now will not allow the Gospel to be spoken. At the same time, we must recognize and be vigilant – for no man suddenly becomes base and no organization suddenly walks away from God. Be wise.

Fourth, we must learn to focus on today’s journey and trust God for tomorrow’s appointments.

When we hear trouble will come, it somehow dominates our thinking and leaves us unfocused about today. Suffering will come, but we must not be consumed with the anticipation of it – but rather walk in prayer (invitation for Jesus to walk beside us) without constant worry (2:10). 10 ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested…”

Are you surprised that God didn’t hide that suffering was coming? He didn’t tell them to pretend it wasn’t. We cannot prepare for what we don’t reckon could come to us. At the same time, preparation doesn’t require worry. It doesn’t require obsessing over the future. God isn’t trying to coax us to follow Him because we will get rich, have success in the physical world or somehow live out daily lives of bliss. That isn’t His point.

He is the prize – and nothing else. If we forget that, trouble will overwhelm us and nothing else will make sense in life. He will seem CRUEL and UNCARING instead of always good and always loving.

Fifth, learn to view all of life as TEMPORARY. That makes some things more precious and other things more durable.

Hold on to the truth that any suffering of this life is temporary – so do not despair (2:10b). 2:10b “…and you will have tribulation for ten days…Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Paul noted in Romans 8:16 “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. … 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

Looking at both the words of Jesus to Smyrna and the words of Paul to the Romans, we see that the church must constantly reinforce Heaven as our home and spiritual warfare this side of Heaven as our constant nagging companion. A church that is focused on creating the kingdom on earth will be tempted to lose its edge in seeing this as a temporary situation.

Jesus spoke of it in terms of being FAITHFUL to the point of physical death. Paul spoke of it as something we were to wait eagerly for with endurance of the present. How does that match what we said about prayerfully facing today in #4 above? The issue is this: I am not to look for Heaven simply as an escape from the problems of today. I am to look for today to be a practice of Jesus’ presence so that as I look ahead, I see the final prize will be unending intimacy in the presence of Jesus.

Paul wrestled about staying on earth, because he longed to take the next step with God and be in His unending presence. Phil 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if [I am] to live [on] in the flesh, this [will mean] fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both [directions], having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for [that] is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. The longer I live, and the more I meet Christians of our day, the fewer people I know who think like that. I don’t see a longing for Heaven. I see a longing to make Heaven their earth experience.

We must remember that at the end of the Bible there is a NEW DAY that God has prepared for us. I love this way of looking at it:

A Sunday School teacher asked her class of children, “Tell me what you think heaven will be like.” She got all kinds of answers, but I especially like this one from a third grade boy who said, “Heaven is going to be the happiest part of my dead life.”

Yes, it is true. The best of my life, and your life as a believer hasn’t even been seen yet. We need to spend time here, because our world is NEGATIVE but our future is VERY POSITIVE. Life here is but for a moment. One day, Revelation says : 21:5 “And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new” …and 21:6 “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end…”

Sixth, we need to know suffering isn’t a mistake.

You didn’t take a wrong turn if suffering for your faith comes. The Spirit’s leading WON’T BE AROUND SUFFERING – but through it (2:11). 11 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches…

Finally, trust you were given promises for well beyond the physical world.

We don’t know what life really means this side of Heaven. Stand on the promises of God for the time after time (2:11b). 2:11b “…He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’

Mr. Holland’s Opus was a movie about a frustrated composer in Portland, Oregon, who takes a job as a high school band teacher in the 1960s. Although diverted from his lifelong goal of achieving critical fame as a classical musician, Glenn Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss) believes his school job is only temporary. At first he maintains his determination to write an opus or a concerto by composing at his piano after putting in a full day with his students. But, as family demands increase (including discovery that his infant son is deaf) and the pressures of his job multiply, Mr. Holland recognizes that his dream of leaving a lasting musical legacy is merely a dream. At the end of the movie we find an aged Mr. Holland fighting in vain to keep his job. The board has decided to reduce the operating budget by cutting the music and drama program. No longer a reluctant band teacher, Mr. Holland believes in what he does and passionately defends the role of the arts in public education. What began as a career detour became a 35-year mission, pouring his heart into the lives of young people. Mr. Holland returns to his classroom to retrieve his belongings a few days after school has let out for summer vacation. He has taught his final class. With regret and sorrow, he fills a box with artifacts that represent the tools of his trade and memories of many meaningful classes. His wife and son arrive to give him a hand. As they leave the room and walk down the hall, Mr. Holland hears some noise in the auditorium. Because school is out, he opens the door to see what the commotion is. To his amazement he sees a capacity audience of former students and teaching colleagues and a banner that reads “Goodbye, Mr. Holland.” Those in attendance greet Mr. Holland with a standing ovation while a band (consisting of past and present members) plays songs they learned at his hand. His wife, who was in on the surprise reception, approaches the podium and makes small talk until the master of ceremonies, the governor of Oregon, arrives. The governor is none other than a student Mr. Holland helped to believe in herself his first year of teaching. As she addresses the room of well-wishers, she speaks for the hundreds who fill the auditorium: “Mr. Holland had a profound influence in my life (on a lot of lives, I know), and yet I get the feeling that he considers a great part of his life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his, and this was going to make him famous and rich (probably both). But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous. At least not outside our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure, but he’d be wrong. Because I think he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame.” Looking at her former teacher the governor gestures with a sweeping hand and continues, “Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. And we are the music of your life.”

I want you to know that Heaven will be even better. Some of you will see faces you haven’t seen for fifty years – but your work helped them find Jesus – and your Savior doesn’t forget… you should look forward to that day.