By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the great paradoxes of life is the fact that the poor can be richer than the rich. Poverty is no necessary hindrance to being wealthy. Wealth, on the other hand, is no guarantee of being truly rich. Even rich Christians are often not rich just because they have wealth. Charles Schultz, the richest cartoonist in history, with his comic strip Peanuts has terrible limitations in spite of his wealth of many millions. He can afford to go anywhere anytime, but he has a form of agoraphobia that makes him fear to go places. The very thought of walking through a hotel lobby makes him sweat with fear. He has his own jet, but he avoids travel and spends a lot of time just being depressed. All his millions do not make him happier.
He is in a sort of perpetual state of grief, but it is called good grief, for out of his sadness he is able to produce laughter, for he can see the funny side of failure, which he is constantly depicting in the life of Charlie Brown who fails in romance, sports, flying kites, and life in general. Losing is funny when it is happening to Charlie Brown and not to us. This laughter at life's misfortunes has made Schultz a fortune, and he is good at portraying it because he lives it.
When he portrays Lucy saying to Charlie Brown, "Don't let you team down by showing up," he is expressing what he experienced in his own childhood. His father's barbershop was where O'gara's is now on Snelling Ave. in St. Paul, MN, and he writes of his experience there as a child. "I remember when I use to go into my father's barbershop for a hair cut. If a paying customer came in while I was in the chair, I 'd have to step down and wait for my father to cut his hair. There I would sit, with half a hair cut, feeling ridiculous." We could go on and on about his feelings of rejection and failure which he cannot escape even as one of the richest people in the world.
The point his life illustrates is one of the major points of the Risen Lord to his churches. Poverty and wealth are very relative terms, and people with riches can be poor, and people with little wealth can be rich. It works both ways for Christians also, for Jesus says to the church of Laodicea in 3:17, "You say, I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing. But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor blind and naked." There are rich Christians who live in utter poverty says Jesus. But to the church in Smyrna He says, "I know your afflictions and your poverty-yet you are rich!" So you have in the judgment of Jesus your poor Christians who are rich, and your rich Christians who are poor.
In other words, Jesus had a different standard of values than the world. Christians are pretty much a product of their culture, and most cultures judge riches by material possessions. The church with the biggest buildings and most land, and where the parking lot is filled with the most expensive cars is the rich church. It would be folly to assume that every church like that is in reality poor in their spiritual wealth, but it is equally folly to ignore Jesus and assume that sort of wealth makes a church spiritually rich. It is also jumping to conclusions to assume that the poor struggling church is a gold mine of spiritual wealth. The only thing we can know for sure is the value of any church to Christ is not one that can be determined by its net worth in dollars.
Jesus is saying that richness is more a matter of attitude than accumulation. He is not saying accumulation is evil, but He is saying it is meaningless without the proper attitude. If you have a wrong spirit that is not pleasing to Him, you can have gold plated pews and diamonds studded hymnals, and you will still be poor to Him. On the other hand, you can have wood pews and hand me down hymnals and be rich if your attitude is one that pleases the Lord of the church. Jesus just loved this church of Smyrna. He had not a critical word for them which he had for the others. It was a suffering church; a persecuted church; a church where loyalty to Christ could very well mean death.
Jesus loved it, but American Christians hate this kind of church. Vance Havner wrote, "It is not easy to preach on Smyrna nowadays. The average American congregation is in no mood to appreciate such a church. It is a day of quick prosperity and give-away shows, it is not easy to interest a well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed Sunday morning crowd in the Smyrna brand of loyalty. We are more like Laodicea, rich and increased with goods and needing nothing. It does not cost much to be a Christian now.
We do not have to pretend we would love to be a part of a suffering church. But we do have to quit pretending that peace and prosperity is an environment which makes us better Christians. The whole health and wealth Gospel, so popular in America, is a mockery of Christ and this church He so loved. Any teaching that says you are spiritually blessed of God and superior because you have abundance of things, peace, and prosperity, is a rejection of the words of Christ. This church that He favored was poor. The word is actually beggary. They had no luxuries and not even all the necessities. They were not popular in their culture. They were despised and hated and persecuted. Yet they were a successful church, and Jesus says they were rich, because in spite of all they suffered they were faithful to Him.
Sometimes that is all a Christian or a church can do-be faithful to Christ. They could not win the masses, and they could not build a big church there to the glory of Christ. They could not even necessarily survive, for some would not. All they could do was be faithful through it all, and yet Jesus calls them rich. This was a successful church in His eyes, but to most culture enslaved Christians this was a total flop of a church. We need to learn from this evaluation of Christ that it is not very wise for us to judge the value of churches. How can we know that the big wealthy church is nauseating to Christ, or that the little country church is a precious diamond to Him? We can't know how Jesus feels about any church. All we can do is make sure we are, as members of the church, making it a body that is rich in His eyes, because no matter what the circumstances we are faithful and loyal to Him.
Jesus loved this church and called them rich because they were willing to pay the cost of being faithful to Him even to the point of death. You have got to be rich in faith to cover that kind of costly loyalty. None of the churches suffered like Smyrna. Jesus says they are to suffer and the devil will put them through terrible times of persecution, and some will even die. Why? Are they bad kids deserving of such painful discipline? Are they being judged for their failure? Not at all! This was one of the best of all the churches, and yet they suffered unjustly. Jesus does not promise escape or even protection. He only promises the reward of the crown of life and the assurance that they will never suffer again, and not be hit by the second death which will be the lot of those who make them suffer in time. There will be reward and judgment, and they will come out winners, but there is no offer of escape.
The message of Job is taught again. Bite your tongue if you feel the impulse to judge suffering churches like Job's friends judged him. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that churches that get burned out or blown down by storms, or which get persecuted are under the judgment of God. Not so says Jesus, for the suffering church may in fact be one of His favorites instead of a rebel being punished. There are a lot of mysteries in the realm of suffering, and one of them is why the best and most favored, who least deserve suffering, often suffer the most.
This does not fit well with the American perspective. We do not suffer like the churches in other parts of the world. Therefore, we feel we are the best and the most blessed. I cannot escape this conclusion in my thinking, and I am grateful to be a part of the church in this land of liberty and freedom from persecution. Nevertheless, I have to see that from the perspective of Jesus the church in those lands where they have suffered for their faith may in fact be the best and richest churches in the world. I would not want to move out of Laodicea and move over to Smyrna and endure their suffering. I love being in a suffering free church, but I ought not to let that deceive me into thinking that it is the best church, and most loved church. The point is, let's try and see the church from the point of view of Jesus and not our own. We think because we don't suffer for Christ we are the most blessed, but this may not be true from Christ's point of view. It is not their suffering that makes them the best, but their faithfulness in suffering, and faithfulness is an issue we need to consider.
Christians tend to be strong in the areas that are a strong part of their culture and upbringing. The people of Smyrna were noted for being faithful to their commitments. More than all of the other cities they were loyal to Rome. They never wavered in their fidelity. Cicero called Smyrna, "One of our most faithful and most ancient allies." They were so patriotic that when the Roman soldiers were losing a battle in the far East the people of Smyrna stripped off their own clothes to send them to the Romans who were cold and suffering. Smyrna was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma, and to the spirit of Rome in 195 B.C. In 26 A.D. it was chosen over Ephesus and all the other cities of Asia Minor to be the place of erecting a temple to Tiberius. Rome honored her for her faithfulness. The point of all this is that Christians are influenced by their culture. A Christian takes on the virtues that are popular in his secular environment. A Christian who grew up as a non-Christian in a good solid home where mom and dad loved and were faithful to each other is more likely to be a faithful mate than one who grew up with an environment full if infidelity, lies, and deceit.
The Christians of Smyrna were faithful whatever the cost because that was a strong virtue in their lives even as non-Christians. The non-Christian culture is not irrelevant to Christ and His church. Those cultures where there are godly virtues are far more conducive to building strong Christians than those where ungodliness is the chosen life-style. There are Christians who can say, thank God for the strengths of my non-Christian heritage. Others cannot say that, for theirs was mostly bad. Christians in Smynra could be grateful, for without that heritage they may not have been able to be faithful to Christ under the pressure they had to endure. Some of these Christians will be crowned and reign with Christ because of the teaching and training they got from their pagan teachers. If you think all that is non-Christian culture is worthless or evil, you are rejecting the Biblical truth that God is working in all cultures to prepare the way for the Gospel. In Him we live and move and have our being is what Paul said to the pagans on Mars Hill. It is Christian pride that refuses to accept the reality of virtues that can be taught and caught in non-Christian cultures.
Jesus is deeply impressed with these Christians who can be faithful when it was so costly. Anyone can be faithful when it is an honor to be a Christian, but when one is hated and persecuted it takes a special commitment to be faithful. Not all Christians have what it takes to be faithful in hard times. They fall away and cease to take a stand for Christ when the cost gets too high. All of the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested. Peter was particularly brave, but under pressure he folded and denied his Lord. Paul had the same experience and lost disciples right and left when the going got hard. When the going gets tough the faithless got going in the other direction. Paul complained in IITim., "Demas has forsaken me having loved this present world." He became faithless and forsook Paul, as did others. Paul was often alone for nobody would stand with him and pay the cost of imprisonment. Even John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, bailed out of following Paul when the going got rough.
Faithfulness is a virtue so pleasing to Christ, and it is a key to any lasting relationship. There is a direct correlation between the weakness of Christian commitment and the breakdown in marriage in our culture. People who cannot be faithful when faithfulness is costly will not be able to keep any relationship going very long. It is the nature of all relationships to face testing and only the faithful will be able to survive the test. I love the radical way Shakespeare has a faithful wife express her strong desire to above all else be faithful.
"Chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel house,
O'er covered quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With Reeky Shrouds with yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-maid grave,
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud,
Things that, to hear them told, has made me tremble.
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstained wife of my sweet love."
That is the kind of faithfulness Jesus is looking for in His bride-the church: A faithfulness that will keep her steady and loyal to Him, even when it is not pleasant, but very painful to be so. It does not take much character to be faithful when all is well and life is full of joy and pleasure. But when the pain and suffering come in any relationship, that will be the test of true faithfulness. Is it a mere cobweb easily broken by pressure, or is it a steel cord that will not break regardless of the strain? We do not face martyrdom, or even persecution in our day, but the fact is, this is still a key virtue for us, for no church and no Christian can be pleasing to Christ without faithfulness. Shannon said, "One faithful, loyal soul is of more value to a church, to a business, to a home, than a dozen rapid starters-and starters."
Be faithful even to the point of death said Jesus, and I will give you the crown of life. It is no good to be 90% faithful, for if you are not 100% faithful you will stop short and miss the crown. You have to be faithful all the way. The idea that you can be a faithful husband if you only have one affair is nonsense. It is not faithfulness if you are not one hundred percent. You cannot be a little bit unfaithful and still be faithful. I heard a crazy story many years ago about a dog that got his tail cut off by a lawn mower. The dog's owner buried the tail in the back yard, but a few hours later the dog was scratching at the door, and he had his tail in his mouth. He had dug it up and brought it to the house. The owner dug a deeper hole, but some hours later the dog was again at the door with his tail. The owner was deeply impressed for he realized he had a dog that was faithful to the end.
It is a silly tale, but it is the message of Christ to His church. He longs for a church where Christians are faithful to the end. He wants to see Christians whose lives show what their lips say when they utter the words you are Lord. Is it any wonder that the church fails to do the will of Christ in the world when Christians are unfaithful. They let their love grow cold; they let heresy and immorality into the church; they sleep while the world perishes and are indifferent-neither hot nor cold. Theses are the problems Jesus had with the first century church, and He still has them with the church of today. The greatest need of Christ in any age is faithful Christians. They are the key to a church being pleasing to Christ.
In every church, in every climb,
When there's some work to do,
It very likely will be done
By just the faithful few.
Dean Stanley said, "Give me a man or woman, young or old, high or low, on whom we know we can thoroughly depend, who will stand firm when others fail-in such a one there is a fragment of the Rock of Ages." John Knox was just such a man. He heard the Reformation message of justification by faith, and he put his faith in Christ, and refused to surrender that faith even when he was forced out of his professorship at the University of Rome. Even when he was sentenced to exile. Even when he was forced to galleys, and for 18 months was chained to the oars. He was offered a bishopric if he would compromise, but he refused. He went to Scotland and became a leader of the church there, but then came persecution, and he had to renounce his faith or die. In 1572 he was faithful even unto death. His people were strengthened by his faithfulness, and though they had to meet in the mountains they never missed a service. Many were caught and killed, but they did not cancel the service. Many were sent as slaves to the West Indies, and before it was over 28,000 Scottish Christians died for their faith.
There preacher silenced and deposed;
The house of prayer against them closed.
They on the mountain heath reposed,
But though in great perplexity.
There harps were not on willows hung,
But still in tune and ready strong,
Till mountain echoes round them rung,
To songs of joyful melody.
Though from their friends and home exiled,
Love wanderers in the desert wild,
The wilderness around them smiled,
For heaven approved their faithfulness.
William of Orange came to their rescue and Scottish Christians have been free every since the 18th century began. Christians there have never had to face that same test, just as we do not in America. So the fact is, most Christians in history do not have to be faithful unto death. It has been a minority, but it is foolish to think that this makes faithfulness any less necessary for those who live in lands of peace and freedom where it costs nearly nothing to be a Christian. The majority of Christians have the harder test of being faithful when it is so easy to be unfaithful, and put the will of Christ as second, third, or tenth place in their list of priorities.
It is one of the paradoxes of history that this small church which was hated and persecuted is the one church out of the seven that survived. The others had so much more going for them in terms of wealth, acceptance, and more people. But this church alone survived and has been the scene of active missions in the 20th century. Jesus, by His providence in history, is saying that the one virtue that He treasures over all others is faithfulness. He will be faithful to those who are faithful to Him.