In the Old Testament, God’s people were really first born as a nation under the rule of the Egyptian empire.
Now, their relationship with the Egyptian government actually began really well — but when God really blessed them and they grew into a population numbered in the millions, the Egyptians freaked out and adopted a policy of genocide.
But God sent his people a messiah, a saviour named Moses. In the depths of one terrible night, while God released the Angel of Death to do what he does best — kill — Moses led God’s people out of Egypt’s collapse into the eastern wilderness. And for one day, two days, three days they enjoyed their freedom.
But then, at sunset on the third day, they found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the pursuing Egyptian army.
And one thousand years after this event, God’s prophets explained that the Red Sea was not just a physical sea that night, the Egyptian army was not merely a human army: they had become the manifestations of a deeper spiritual truth. The Red Sea was actually the body of a great sea-serpent from the Abyss, curling around to crush God’s people on one side; the Egyptian empire like its teeth and claws reaching out to destroy them on the other — and the whole thing called into action by the Angel of Death, who was furious at his missed opportunity to destroy God’s people back in Egypt three nights earlier.
Now, Moses describes what happened next in very physical terms: God parted the Red Sea, his people passed safely through to the shore on the other side, and then — when the Egyptian army tried to follow — the sea closed and drowned them all. But the later prophets described what happened that night in spiritual terms: God parted the encircling serpent, cutting it to pieces, making a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over. Then, when the Egyptians tried to follow, the earth swallowed men and slaughtered serpent together.
And so, in the end, the might of the Egyptian empire was dragged down into the Abyss along with the great serpent they had put their faith in, while God’s people flew away into a place prepared for them in the wilderness, where they were taken care of for a time, times, and half a time — 42 years, to be exact. God himself described it later in these words: “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
Well, the years became centuries. God’s people were established in a land of their own. They grew up into a great nation. They built a great capital city — Jerusalem — with a beautiful golden temple at its center. They extended their influence south into Arabia and Africa, east into India, west as far as Spain, northward into the mountains of Turkey and Iran. It looked like God’s people were going to conquer the world! not through violence, but simply through the beauty and the wisdom of true worship.
There was one problem, however: the Angel of Death had survived the destruction of the Egyptian sea-monster.
Yes, it is true that, when God struck down the sea-serpent and the Egyptian empire empowered by that serpent, this was a profound defeat for the Angel of Death. He had invested all his power in that empire, hoping to wipe out God’s people while they were still newborn as a nation. And so losing that battle at the Red Sea actually cost him control of his empire, cost him most of the power he had invested there.
But the Angel of Death did not just give up at that point. He faded away into the background of history, nursing his rage, planning his revenge. He turned aside to guerilla war tactics: using smaller nations to attack or seduce God’s people, trying to weaken them, trying to limit their expansion, trying to buy himself time to regather his strength, to muster his scattered troops, to summon yet another serpent from the Abyss and recentralize his power within yet another earthly empire.
And so, in the later years, God’s prophets began to warn God’s people of a new danger that was rising up against them out of the eastern sea: an empire from beyond the Euphrates river, an empire like a gliding, coiling, all-consuming sea-serpent, an empire driven by the same Angel of Death that had tried to destroy them when they were just children in Egypt. This was the Babylonian empire.
But even worse, God’s prophets said the Babylonians would actually succeed in destroying Jerusalem and its temple. God’s nation would experience a terrible tribulation, a descent into death — but then, at the appointed time, God would once again send his people a Messiah who would slay the serpent, shatter the empire, and lead his people out of the ruins to a new creation.
And it all happened just as the prophets said: Babylon swept through the nations and took God’s people captive. It was a time of terrible tribulation. And so, I think we can imagine the people’s excitement as the appointed time of the end drew near: they were not just looking forward to the end of their exile, they were looking forward to their final Messiah, the final Judgement, the end of the world and the beginning of a new one.
And that is when a prophet named Daniel began to ask God, “When will your Messiah arrive? How much longer until Judgement Day? How much longer until the new creation?” And that is when God told Daniel that this was going to be a sort of good news/bad news situation:
The good news was that, within the next couple of years, God’s people would get to go home and rebuild Jerusalem along with its temple, and over the centuries they would once again grow in prosperity and power and influence.
The bad news was that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed one more time — along with its temple — by one last bestial empire that would rise out of the sea, an empire more terrible than all the rest that would actually devour the whole earth.
And God went on to say, “At that time there will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at the appointed time your people — everyone whose name is found written in the book — will be delivered, resurrected into everlasting life in a new creation.”
Well, it all happened just as Daniel foresaw: Babylon collapsed. God’s people returned home and rebuilt Jerusalem along with its temple. They grew in prosperity and power and influence, though in times of trouble. And then another great empire rose up out of the sea — out of the western sea, this time. This empire crushed and devoured one third of the earth, and it took God’s nation captive along with all their neighbors. This was the Roman empire.
And that is why, as the appointed time drew near — the end of the 490 years Daniel had predicted — God’s people began to get really excited. Some pastors looked back through Daniel’s book and concluded that the Roman empire must be the final bestial empire from the sea. A kind of ”End Times” fever began to sweep the nation, an expectation that the final Messiah and the final Judgement must be just around the corner.
As a result, a series of men began to show up, each one claiming to be the promised Messiah. These messiahs raised armies. They led violent rebellions. They were each caught and crucified — but this did not stop new “messiahs” from showing up to lead new rebellions. And in the end, the Roman empire lost patience with God’s nation and completely destroyed the temple, along with the city of Jerusalem, and scattered the survivors throughout the empire, forbidding them ever to return to their ancestral homeland.
So it turns out that those pastors during those generations under Roman rule…miscalculated. They caught the End Times virus, and this fever distorted their interpretation of God’s Word, especially their interpretations of Daniel’s book. The Roman empire was a great empire, but it only conquered one third of the world at that time — whereas Daniel clearly says the final beast will devour the whole earth. Therefore, the Roman empire could not possibly be the final great empire that Daniel had written about.
Unfortunately, instead of realizing that their pastors were wrong, most of God’s nation at that time assumed their pastors’ End Times teachings were correct — and then, when their pastors’ false prophecies failed to be fulfilled, the people blamed God for failing to keep his promises, instead of blaming their pastors for being wrong. And so most of the generation that witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem abandoned the faith. After all, why continue in faithfulness to a God who does not keep his promises?
But even as God’s nation collapsed into confusion and despair, a new set of pastors appeared who had a very different explanation for what was going on.
They claimed that God had, in fact, kept his promises and fulfilled his ancient prophecies. They claimed that 40 years before Jerusalem was destroyed, God had sent his Messiah to deliver his people, and this Messiah had already fatally wounded the demonic serpent that lay coiled about the foundations of the Roman empire. The war was already over! The empire-conquering Son of Man had already come and gone back to be crowned king by his Father, the Ancient of Days. The demonic head of Rome’s serpent was already crushed, the empire was actually already dead — it just did not know it yet! The body of a great empire, like the body of a great serpent, takes a long time to die.
And while it is dying it is still dangerous. That is why Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed. In its dying rage, when the serpent found itself defeated, and God’s Messiah lifted up out of reach, it had made yet another attempt to destroy God’s people by sending its dying empire to wipe out their political and spiritual center. And it succeeded!
But in doing this the serpent had also miscalculated, and misinterpreted God’s Word — just like the End Times pastors had. Because destroying the political center of God’s nation did not actually kill God’s people, it merely transformed them into a spiritual nation without an earthly political center. By destroying the earthly Jerusalem with its stone temple, the serpent had actually set God’s people free from politics, free from national boundaries, free to expand and fill the earth.
In other words, these new pastors were saying, the destruction of Jerusalem was not a meaningless disaster, it actually marked the new birth of God’s people: born once again into slavery under a foreign empire, born once again into the beginning of the great story of redemption.
The first cycle of redemption had been told through the story of Seth’s nation, and ended with the destruction of the earth by Noah’s flood.
The second, more developed cycle had been told through the story of Israel’s nation, and it had just ended with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman empire.
Now, the third and final cycle of redemption will be told through the story of Jesus’ nation, which must end with the destruction of the earth by fire and the beginning of a new creation.
Well, John — the man who wrote the Book of Revelation — was one of those new pastors. And, in fact, God had commissioned him to write the Book of Revelation to help explain what was really going on. Because Jesus’ Church was getting confused. Those were confusing times!
Because, look: when Christianity was first born, its relationship with the Roman government had actually begun really well. For instance, one of the first generation of Christian pastors — a man named Paul — had managed to preach to members of the emperor’s household, and some of them had joined the new faith, taking the name of their Saviour, calling themselves Christians.
But then, when God blessed the Church and it began to really grow…the Roman authorities freaked out and began to adopt a policy of genocide.
And some Christians — as they looked at this growing tribulation, and looked at Daniel’s visions, and looked at how pastors in previous generations had interpreted Daniel’s visions — began to wonder if, in fact, the Roman empire might be the final bestial empire from the sea after all! They began to wonder if Judgement Day really might be right around the corner. Some Christians began to catch a really bad case of End Times fever: they started interpreting every big current event as a sign that Jesus was about to return, destroy the Roman empire, and usher in the last eternal age of the world. Some began to wonder if, perhaps, they should help Jesus return sooner by leading a rebellion against the Roman empire now!
So Jesus himself commissioned John to write this book as a vaccine against the End Times virus. Yes, the Angel of Death has been defeated, stripped of his power when Jesus descended into death and infected death with life. Yes, the ancient Prosecutor of God’s people has had his licence to practice law revoked. Yes, the head of the ancient serpentine dragon has been crushed, his body cast down to the earth. But this is actually just the beginning of the story of Jesus’ Church, not the end.
And this is how that story continues, reading now from Revelation, Chapter 12:
 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.
Now, if you recall from last week, the woman is a symbol for God’s Old Testament people, who experienced the pain of childbirth for many centuries as they waited for their nation to produce God’s Messiah, Jesus: the male child who has already completed his work and been lifted up to God and to his throne.
And as we heard last week, the dragon here is filled with fury because he knows that his time is short. His head is crushed. His body is dying — his empire that once conquered one third of the earth, that once swept one third of the princely stars from the sky. Discovering that he can no longer strike out directly against God’s Messiah in heaven, he pursues God’s people on earth instead.
But  the woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach.
Now, last week we actually got a preview of this moment, when we were told the woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. And we realized last week that this marked the transition point when the symbolic ”woman“ was transformed into the symbolic ”two witnesses” who preached for 1,260 days in the ”great city”; this marks the point when God’s Old Testament people were transformed into God’s New Testament people.
Here, today, we get a closer look at how this happened:
First, the reason the woman fled is because the dragon was pursuing her.
Second, the reason she flees into the wilderness in particular is because the dragon has just destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem in his efforts to wipe out the new-born people of God, just like the Angel of Death once swept through Egypt at midnight.
But, just as in Egypt, the Angel of Death only ended up killing his own worshipers in Jerusalem; ancient records tell us that the Christians in the city fled into the wilderness when they saw the Roman legions first surrounding the city. They remembered the words Jesus said to his disciples: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, get out!” So they did! They reoriented their lives. They turned their backs on the earthly Jerusalem, they put all their hope in the heavenly Jerusalem to come, and they escaped, untouched by the Angel of Death.
This is how God’s Old Testament people — who had lived their lives centered around Jerusalem — became God’s New Testament people, a people who have no fixed earthly homeland, a people committed to following Jesus Christ through the wilderness for a time, times and half a time.
Those survivors of Jerusalem’s fall scattered themselves throughout the empire. Wherever they went they talked about Jesus’ kingdom, they started new worshiping communities, they lived lives centered around the values of Jesus’ kingdom. For one day, two days, three days they enjoyed their freedom to live and worship as Christians.
But  then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent.
And here, again, we can see how this vision follows the pattern of the first exodus. Except that, in the first exodus, God’s people were trapped by a physical sea, a physical torrent of water. In this exodus, the final true Exodus, God’s people are trapped by a spiritual torrent which comes from the mouth of this spiritual serpent.
In other words: the dragon, the ancient disbarred Accuser of God’s people, is up to his old tricks. For ages he used words to attack God’s people in God’s heavenly throne-room. He cannot do that anymore! So now he is using words to attack God’s people on earth: a torrent of false accusations and false teachings.
This vision is explaining why the Roman empire has suddenly turned against Christianity: the serpent is spreading lies about the Church. He is whispering in the ears of Roman governors, telling them that Christians are anti-social, disloyal, bad citizens. The dragon is hoping to wipe out God’s people while they are still a newborn Church, before they can escape beyond the borders of his empire and spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
But not to worry!  The earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.
As John watches, creation itself serves God by swallowing up the river of falsehood, just as the earth and the sea once swallowed up God’s enemies during the first exodus.
And the point is this: these accusations being poured out against the early Church are going to be proven wrong. Over the generations to come, it is going to become obvious to everyone that Christians actually make the best kind of citizens, the most trustworthy neighbors, the people most committed to the good of society. The Roman empire is going to over-reach itself and collapse under its own weight — but Jesus’ Church is going to survive, and grow, and fill the earth with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
Here is a summary of what just happened in this chapter:
The dragon, the Angel of Death, had invested all his power in the Roman empire, hoping to use it to devour Jesus as soon as he was born. He failed, and this cost him his place in heaven.
Then, finding himself cast out, with Jesus lifted out of reach, the dragon turned his empire to devour Jesus’ Church as soon as it was born. He failed again, and this actually cost him his empire.
And so now, in this last verse, finding his centralized earthly power gone, with the first generations of Jesus’ Church carried away out of reach, Satan turns to guerilla war tactics against the ever growing offspring of the early Church: planting false accusations against Christians in one nation, sowing dissention and false teaching in another nation, poisoning the wells of living water wherever he can.
Still, as we discovered back in Chapter 11, nothing can stop the expansion of God’s people until the appointed time. The woman’s offspring — the two witnesses from Chapter 11 — endure the tribulations of the wilderness of the world, just as their mother once endured the tribulations of the Roman empire: for 42 months, for 1,260 days, for a time, times and half a time. Years turn into centuries. The woman’s offspring extend their influence south beyond Arabia and Africa, east beyond India, west beyond Spain, northward beyond the mountains of Turkey and Iran. Though they are resisted by the dragon, they conquer the world! not through violence, but simply by keeping God’s commands and holding fast their testimony about Jesus.
But we also need to remember that — just as John first pointed out to us back in Chapter 11 — when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them.
We are going to find out that, even as God’s people have been growing in prosperity and power down through the centuries, the Angel of Death has also been regathering his strength, mustering his scattered troops, preparing to summon yet another serpent from the Abyss, another beast that will recentralize his earthly power in one final empire that is destined to devour the whole earth.
And the detailed story of that beast begins next week, in Chapter 13. So, if you are interested in that, make sure to come back.
In the meantime, however: what is this passage supposed to mean to us today? How do we apply this to our lives?
Well, by writing this down, John was vaccinating the seven churches of ancient Roman Asia against the End Times virus. He was helping them understand that the Roman empire really is not the final bestial empire from the sea that Daniel wrote about. He was helping them understand their place in the arc of God’s great redemption story:
Just as the first generations of God’s Old Testament people were born into slavery in Egypt, and then carried away on eagle’s wings, out of the ruins of that dying empire into a place of safety in the wilderness, where their offspring would be able to grow and mature until the day Babylon was ready to rise up out of the sea and defeat them — so also the first generations of God’s New Testament people have been born into slavery under Rome. Through Jesus’ work, they are being carried away on eagle’s wings, out of the ruins of that dying empire into a place of safety in the wilderness, where all the generations of their offspring will continue to grow and mature until the day the final bestial empire is ready to rise up against them and accomplish the mystery of God.
But John’s vaccination against the End Times virus was also intended for every generation of Jesus’ Church. And, really, this vaccination ought to be even more effective for us today than it was for the early Church, because we are able to look back and see that it is all true:
Jesus’ Church was born in the Roman empire, which tried to drown her, while she was still a baby, with a flood of false accusations and false teachings. The empire did fail, and eventually fall apart, swallowed by the earth. But Christianity survived the collapse of that civilization, emerging from those ruins stronger than ever. Over the centuries since, the Church has come of age, growing in strength and maturity, serving as Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth, expanding God’s garden into the wilderness of the nations, safe from destruction for the last 1,260 days, for the last time, times and half a time, while still being stalked by the dying dragon with the crushed head — the dragon that will, one day, be set free for a short time to gather all his forces together for his final battle against the people of God.
And the way this vaccination works is by inoculating us with the truth. Once we know the truth, our spiritual immune system will be able to recognize the symptoms of the End Times virus and fight it off whenever it tries to infect our community.
Now, people who catch the End Times virus have always exhibited a pretty consistent set of symptoms, going right back to the Old Testament:
First, those who catch End Times fever often become very focused on comparing their current events with biblical prophecies, claiming that this gives them special insights into God’s plan for the future.
Second, they will often try to speed up Judgement Day by starting a rebellion against their governments, claiming that it is their duty to take control of society so that Jesus can come back sooner.
Third, they will often try to speed up Judgement Day by withdrawing from society, claiming that — once they have created a perfectly pure Church on earth — this will inspire Jesus to return and destroy everyone else.
And often an End Times movement will try to do all these things at once: their reading of current events guides their withdrawal from society which is their way of challenging the government. But underneath all these surface symptoms:
People with End Times fever consistently exhibit this one very strong symptom: they believe it is the Christian’s destiny to avoid suffering and defeat.
This is the false teaching John has been vaccinating us against. Beginning in Chapter 6, he introduced us to the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and testimony they had maintained — and we found out he was talking about us. Then, in Chapter 11, he confirmed that it is, in fact, the destiny of the Church to be defeated by a beast from the Abyss before the end. Now, at the end of Chapter 12, he has introduced us to an enraged dragon that is at constant war with those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus — and again we find out he is talking about us.
So the way we are supposed to apply this vaccination to our lives is by accepting this truth, and watching out for those who exhibit the symptoms of End Times fever, so that we do not expose ourselves unnecessarily to the virus.
And this application is — perhaps — even more important today than it ever has been. Because, as we look around at the condition of modern Christianity, it is pretty obvious that a lot of people are badly infected. If you doubt me, just visit a Christian bookstore. Most Christian bookstores, especially Protestant ones, have an “End Times” section now. And if we were to take a sampling of those books, we would discover that 90% of them — and all of the best-selling ones — have one consistent message: good Christians are going to be raptured out of here before the final tribulation.
But this theological infection has not stopped there: it began with the idea that Christians will not suffer from the final tribulation, but then the virus spread into the idea that Christians do not need to suffer now either. That’s right! The false prosperity gospel that has swallowed up so many modern churches in our time is actually the rotten fruit of one particular End Times virus that first infected some parts of western Christianity 150 years ago.
So, let’s get practical now: what exactly should we do when we come into contact with the End Times virus, or run into someone with a high End Times fever?
Well, for today’s practical application, we are going to go back and read Jesus’ advice for the church in the city of Smyrna, one of the seven churches that Jesus spoke to at the beginning of Revelation:
Now, Smyrna considered itself “The First of Asia”, the foremost city of Asia. It was very large, very wealthy, and the citizens were enthusiastic supporters of the Roman empire — so enthusiastic that they were one of the first cities in Asia to proclaim the emperor a god. As a result, Rome had rewarded them by giving Smyrna special privileges as a free, self-governing city, which allowed them to set their own tax rates and become even more wealthy.
Quite naturally Smyrna wanted to maintain these privileges. So the city council started requiring every citizen to worship at the emperor’s shrine once a year as a mark of their loyalty to the empire. All they had to do was burn a pinch of incense, say, “Caesar is Lord,” eat some of the sacred food, spill some sacred wine on the floor, and they would get a certificate proclaiming their good standing as a citizen of Smyrna.
Jewish people, however, were exempt from this requirement. As a strictly monotheistic religion, they had already caused such a stink about this that the Roman empire finally said, “Okay, fine! If you’re Jewish you do not have to worship the emperor!” And because Christianity was seen as a Jewish denomination, Christians were also exempt from worshiping the emperor.
So with this background in mind, we are ready to understand what Jesus has to say here:  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.
The city of Smyrna claims to be “The First”, a free and self-governing city with ultimate power over its citizens. But the truth is only Jesus has that title and that power, and he wants to remind his people of this fact.
 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
So apparently, in Smyrna, some of the Jewish synagogues have begun to realize — a synagogue is a Jewish surau, by the way — they have begun to realize that Christians actually worship a crucified criminal as their Messiah, which sounds like heresy to the Jews! So some synagogues have begun to kick Christians out, forcing the Christians to plant their own distinctly Christian synagogues.
But even worse, apparently, some synagogues are reporting these Christian synagogues to the government, saying, “These are not truly Jewish congregations here. Therefore you should require them to worship the emperor like everyone else!”
Basically, Christians in Smyrna are being falsely accused of refusing to do their duty to the emperor, when the truth is they are, actually, a Jewish denomination that is legally exempt. So Jesus is saying here, “Don’t worry la! I know the truth. I know that you are actually the only true Jews left in the city, because those other synagogues have all rejected me as their Messiah — they have actually joined Satan’s side, they have joined the serpent and the empire.”
But apparently the damage is already done: the Christians of Smyrna are falling into poverty. This is because, when emperor worship was still a new idea, there was no death penalty attached to it. However, those who refused to participate were viewed with suspicion by their neighbors, and it was almost impossible to advance in your career or in your business if you did not have that certificate.
So again, Jesus is saying here, “Don’t worry la! It is true you are no longer as prosperous as you were before, but actually you are richer than ever! simply because you belong to me now.”
He is not done, however:
 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.
— “ten days” was an ancient way of saying “just a little while” —
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
So instead of promising his church that things are going to get better from this point on, Jesus actually tells them things are going to get worse!
And he was right: things did get worse. What began as a social obligation to worship the emperor turned into a legal obligation — and those who refused were imprisoned, put on trial, convicted, and executed.
And we know this because, in the church of Smyrna at this time, there was a young Christian named Polycarp. He would have been in his early twenties when Smyrna’s copy of the Book of Revelation was first delivered, and John was actually Polycarp’s mentor. Well, eventually Polycarp became the senior pastor of the church in Smyrna. And about 60 years later, he was arrested and burned alive as the “twelfth martyr in Smyrna” when he refused to burn a pinch of incense and say, “Caesar is Lord.”
According to Polycarp’s own disciple, Irenaeus, this was his testimony on the day of his trial: “For eighty-six years have I served Christ, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”
Now, any modern Prosperity Gospel preacher — any teacher who has been infected with the End Times virus — would look at this little letter to the church of Smyrna and say, “No, no, no, Jesus, you’re doing it all wrong! If you really want to encourage people, if you want to grow a mega-church, you have got to promise them health and wealth, not poverty and suffering and prison and death!”
And, you know what? They are right: telling people that they will not have to suffer any real tribulation — and certainly not the final tribulation — really is very attractive, it really does feel very encouraging! right up until real tribulation begins. And that is usually when the disciples of these teachers abandon the faith completely. It does not occur to them to wonder if those teachers were lying to them, they simply assume that God has been lying to them. And why continue in faithfulness to a God who does not keep his promises?
Such teachers claim to be motivated by love, by the desire to encourage people. But as the Apostle Paul points out in one of his letters: that is a false love and a false encouragement. Such teachers are actually motivated by a fear of suffering, and they are actually trying to infect other people with the same fear, so they will not feel so alone, so they can hide their fear behind boasts about their great success as church leaders.
So this is why Jesus’ practical advice for the Christians of Smyrna is just as important for us! Jesus is saying here, “Look, I know that these false teachers, these false Jews, are trying to make you afraid, so they can control you by offering you a false hope. So this is how you fight back: accept the reality that you are going to suffer. And then, do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.”
So, if you are here today, and you have been taught to believe that it is not your destiny, as a Christian, to really suffer in this life —
— and let’s face it, that is most of us, right? Not only have we been taught this by a lot of modern feel-good Christianity, but this is what we want to believe anyway, right? That is why this kind of teaching is so poisonous and so popular: because it does not taste like poison!
So, let’s try that again:
Since we are here today, and we all want to believe that it is not our destiny to really experience tribulation, listen: that belief, that hope, is the spiritual equivalent of burying our heads in the sand. The longer we believe this, the more we put our hope in the false promise that we can avoid tribulation, the weaker we become, and the more danger we are in.
This is our practical application for today, this is our vaccination against End Times fever, this is our spiritual mask and our social distancing policy: we are going to stand up and face the truth together. And this is the truth, directly from Jesus’ mouth: “You are about to suffer.”
Whew! Okay. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
And now that we have taken our heads out of the sand and faced the truth about the false accusations and the false teachings that are attacking us, now we are prepared to follow our Lord’s next command, which is this: be faithful, even to the point of death, because then I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Next week we will start talking in more detail about what it looks like to be faithful in the face of tribulation. So make sure to come back for that. For now, though we are going to end with this benediction, this blessing that Jesus himself spoke over the church of Smyrna:
 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
And all God’s people said: Amen!