“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write…” (Revelation 2.8a, NKJV)
Smyrna means myrrh. It is an aromatic gum that grows in Arabia. It was highly prized in earliest times and used in incense and perfume. It was, of course, one of the three gifts given to the infant Jesus by the magi from the east. An interesting property of myrrh is that its beautiful fragrance is only released by crushing. Jesus wrote to this church that was being crushed in the press of persecution.
The Romans called Smyrna “the beauty of Asia.” In 196 BC they erected a temple to the goddess of Rome. Once a year a person had to burn a pinch of incense on the altar and acknowledge that Caesar was Lord. In return he received a certificate. This act of worship was a severe test for Christians because those who refused were subject to persecution and in many cases death. Many Christians confessed Caesar as Lord and said, “What difference does it make? I don’t believe it. Let’s just do it and we won’t suffer any problems.” But there were hundreds of Christians who wouldn’t do it and died for their faith in Jesus Christ.
Considering the church of Smyrna begs the question: “What am I willing to really suffer for my faith in Jesus?” As believers in the United States, things are relatively easy for us. Other than Cassie Bernall, who was shot at Columbine High School for her confession of faith in Jesus Christ, I don’t know of anyone who has been killed in this country simply for being a Christian. But that is not the case in other countries. More people have died for their Christianity in the past 100 years than in all periods of church history combined. Under Joseph Stalin 30 million people were killed, and most believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Countries like China, North Korea, Sudan and Iran overtly persecute Christians.
Jesus told us:
“God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.” (Matthew 5.10-12, NLT)
While being spoken against or slandered for doing the right thing is certainly a form of persecution, I really haven’t personally known anyone whose life has been threatened for righteousness sake–that is until I met Saeed, a young Iranian pastor who was forced to flee his country. This past fall he returned to Iran where he was arrested. The charges against him were converting to Christianity and baptizing others. Both “offenses” carry the death penalty. Christians across this nation and in Iran prayed earnestly for his release. Through a miraculous set of circumstances God answered that prayer, and Saeed returned home to Boise, Idaho.
A couple of months ago Saeed spoke at our church. I will never forget what he said: “God brings us close to Him in times of difficulty and persecution.” His lovely wife Naghmeh was translating for him at the time. He then turned and kissed her on the cheek. “That is what Jesus does to us when we suffer for Him.”
I don’t think I’ll ever view persecution quite the same way.
Character formed through the fiery trials of persecution is made no other way. A beautiful fragrance is released when we are crushed for Jesus. But it will only happen if we find the good in it and rejoice. It is a sweet and joyful thing when Jesus kisses His Bride!
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