One of the reasons for the rapid rise of Hitler’s influence in Germany was his manipulation and use of religion. Hitler understood that if he could persuade the pastors of Germany’s churches he could increase the tempo of his plan for world domination. Playing upon the Jew’s role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, he convinced the pastors to use their influence and support. Pastors who did not cooperate with his agenda were imprisoned. One such pastor was a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer remained faithful even in the midst of great pressure to capitulate, a decision that would eventually cost him his life. He was executed in a concentration camp in 1945. One of the treasures that remains is a book he wrote titled, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In it, he points out that following Christ is often a costly decision. The most famous line from his book is probably familiar to you: “When God calls a man to follow him he bids him come and die.”
The Church at Smyrna was acquainted with the cost of discipleship. The very name of the city implies suffering and sorrow. Smyrna comes from the same word that gives us the word “myrrh,” which you’ll recall is was one of the gifts presented by the Magi to the baby Jesus. It was an ointment used to prepare bodies for burial.
The message to the Church at Smyrna is brief. Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who was dead but is now alive: I know about your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich! I know the blasphemy of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they are not, because their synagogue belongs to Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be harmed by the second death (Revelation 2:8-11, NLT).
As Jesus evaluated the Church at Smyrna he observed the great cost of their discipleship and commended their faithfulness. Their suffering, literally the word thilipsis, is a word picture for one who has placed their shoulder to the grindstone. It connotes stress, struggle and strain to the point of exhaustion. In his remarks, Jesus pointed to four areas where they suffered.
First there was exclusion through poverty. These believers, like many in the first century, were trying to do honest business in a dishonest world. Both Jews and pagans alike would refuse to do any business with these Christians, excluding them from the marketplace, which made it difficult for them to survive. Second, there was aggression through slander and misrepresentation. Though the Christians did their best to live lives that were above reproach they couldn’t control what others thought or said of them. Then there was isolation through imprisonment and even martyrdom.
In antiquity, Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. In AD 156, some 60 years after John’s vision of Christ on Patmos, Polycarp was burned at the stake. As they prepared to light the flames Polycarp was given one final opportunity to secure his freedom by renouncing Christ. His response is remarkable.
“In 86 years Jesus Christ has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me? O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you, I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the number of your martyrs.”
What is the true nature of discipleship? What is your discipleship costing you? I’ll take that up the remainder of this week from the Church at Smyrna.