Sermon preached on July 10, 2011 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at http://www.cantonnewlife.org/.
Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
Jeanette Li was a remarkable Chinese woman who was a great witness for Christ during the years of suffering and war that took place early in the last century. She and some other members of her family were converted (in part) because of the work of Christian doctors in the Christian Mission Hospital, a hospital about a mile from where she lived. The story of how they ended up going there was remarkable. When Jeanette was a little girl, she came down with a high fever. Her mother tried all the remedies her neighbors recommended, but instead of getting better, Jeanette became worse. Her mother decided to take her to a Chinese doctor. Just as she picked her up and went out the door, one of her relatives came to visit. The relative urged Jeanette's mother to take her to the mission hospital. But Jeanette's mother replied,
"People tell me that those foreign doctors take little children and dig their eyes out to make medicine. I'll never take my daughter to that hospital."
The relative was a water carrier at the hospital and she knew that the doctors didn't do anything like that. But before she could convince the mother little Jeanette asked for a drink. Her mother put her down and went back into the house to boil some water for tea. The relative seized the opportunity, picked up Jeanette, shouted to the mother that she was leaving, and took Jeanette to the Mission Hospital. When Jeanette's mother came out several minutes later she was surprised to find Jeanette missing. She assumed her relative had taken Jeanette to the Mission Hospital and immediately went there to get Jeanette. When she arrived at the hospital she found her daughter was already being examined by a doctor. Her mother watched and said to herself,
"I'll not leave her even half a step, and if they make one move to cut out her eyes, I'll beat them."
She actually thought that there was the possibility that the Christian doctors would cut out her daughter's eyes. (Jeanette Li, p. 23-24) I would have thought that that story was too preposterous for anyone to believe.
Can you imagine someone making up and starting a story like that? Christian doctors had gone to China to help the Chinese people, to bring the benefits of modern medicine to them. They built and staffed a hospital and opened their doors and offered free medical care to the poor—and some of the Chinese people started spreading vicious lies about them.
Slander has been around since shortly after the fall into sin. People make up lies about people they don't like and spread them around.
You all know that I love John Calvin. I agree wholeheartedly with what William Cunningham, the 19th century Scottish theologian said about Calvin, that his contributions to the interpretation of Scripture, to the systematic exposition of Christian doctrine, and to the upholding of the truth, (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 299)
"entitle him to a place in the estimation and gratitude of the church of Christ, which no other uninspired man is entitled to share."
And yet, to listen to many today, including many Christians, you would think that John Calvin, rather than being one of the greatest Christians to have ever lived, was one of the worst. He has been called a mass murderer, been accused of torture, and of teaching doctrines from the pit of hell. It is almost unbelievable how much he has been slandered. The slander has not only come from unbelievers, from enemies of the gospel, but from many people who consider themselves Christians.
Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, was slandered so much during his early ministry that his wife had Matthew 5:11–12 printed and framed and hung in their house so that her husband might read it every day and not become disheartened. It read,
"Blessed are ye,
when men shall revile you,
and persecute you,
and shall say all manner of evil
against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad:
for great is your reward in heaven:
for so persecuted they the prophets
which were before you."
There's a whole chapter is his autobiography about the slander that was directed against him. Among other things he was called a 'religious demagogue', and was said to preach himself. (Spurgeon, The Early Years, p. 321) He was slandered about his looks, his delivery and his theology.
It is absolutely true that the greatest servants of God have often been the ones that have been most slandered. You'll remember what the Pharisees said about Jesus when He cast out demons. They said, (Matthew 12:24)
"It is only by Beelzebub,
the prince of demons,
that this fellow drives out demons."
One of the ways that the enemies of the gospel try to stop its spread is to tell lies about Christians and their work.
It was that way with the church at Smyrna. They were slandered.
People spread lies about them. Jesus said to them, (Revelation 2:9)
"I know the slander of those
who say they are Jews and are not,
but are a synagogue of Satan."
The word that is rendered, 'slander' here is an interesting word. It's basic meaning is, (BDAG)
"speech that denigrates or defames".
It is oftentimes translated 'blasphemy' and is used in to refer to blasphemy against God. For example in Matthew 12:31 Jesus said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. I think the distinction in translation is that when the word is used of God it is rendered blasphemy and when it's used of men or angels, it's translated 'slander'. At the heart of this word is the idea of falsehood. Blasphemy is a lie against God and His character. Slander against people defaming their character by speaking falsehoods. Some people in Smyrna were telling lies about the Christians there with the intention of damaging their reputation.
Most of the teaching of the New Testament regarding slander relates to warnings to Christians not to do it. Over and over Christians are told not to slander others. It is such a heinous evil that God wants us to flee from it. Not only are we not to spread falsehoods about other people, but unless it is absolutely necessary we are not to speak against other people. As Proverbs 10:12 says,
"Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs."
We are to be very careful not to slander others.
But the slander mentioned in our text is different. Christians in Smyrna were on the receiving end of slander. They were being slandered by the enemies of the gospel. This slander was coming from unbelieving Jews. They were spreading lies about the Christians at Smyrna and making trouble for them.
A little history sheds some light on this. Judaism held a special place under the Romans. It was tolerated more than other religions. The Romans recognized how important their religion was to the Jews and how seriously they took the first commandment so the Roman authorities made accommodations for them and exempted them from the emperor worship which was required of other people. G. K. Beale writes, (Revelation, 240)
"The Jews were not forced to worship Caesar as a god, but allowed to offer sacrifices in honor of emperors as rulers and not as gods."
When Christianity first started spreading throughout the Roman Empire, it was regarded by some as a Jewish sect and because of this enjoyed a degree of protection under the umbrella of Judaism. But during the time of Nero this changed. Beale writes that some Jews, (p. 240)
"were only too willing to make the Roman authorities aware that the Christians were not a Jewish sect."
Beale says of the situation in Smyrna,
"The specific accusations of Jews before government authorities were probably that Christians were upsetting the peace of the status quo, were not a Jewish sect, and refused to pay homage to Caesar as Lord…"
There are two lessons that we can learn from our Lord's words to the Christians of Smyrna.
First of all, it's implied that
Christians should place the slander against them in the hands of the Lord.
You as a Christian don't need to be overly concerned about the slander against you. Leave it with the Lord. He knows about it. That should be enough for us.
What's interesting about Jesus' words here about the slander of the Jews is that He doesn't tell the Smyrna Christian to do anything about it. Jesus merely tells them the Christians at Smyrna that He knows about the slander against them—and He leaves it at that.
Slander is something that often you can't do anything about. You can't stop wicked people from doing it. You can ask them to stop, you can try to get the facts out and clear your name, but often it won't work. It's an exercise in futility. Defending yourself against slander often just leads to people believing that there must be something to the accusation. A lot of people find slander more interesting that the truth. Winston Churchill said,
"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."
Robert Cook, President of King's College told a story from the early years of his ministry. At he time he had been receiving some rather pointed criticism. In fact, it had become of such great concern to him that he sought the counsel of a friend, Bible expositor and pastor, Harry A. Ironside. Pouring out his heart, Bob Cook asked what he should do about the denunciations being made against him. Ironside said,
"Bob, if the criticism about you is true, mend your ways! If it isn't, forget about it!"
Ironside was correct. I've heard a refinement on his advice that is improves on it. I've heard it said that when you go through slander or difficulty it's a great opportunity for a Christian to draw closer to Christ and grow in holiness. In other words, one of the ways to react to slander is to become more holy. Meet slander with love, with kindness, with compassion, with mercy.
1 Peter 3:16 speaks of our Christian witness and tells us to do it with gentleness and respect,
"keeping a clear conscience,
so that those who speak maliciously
against your good behavior in Christ
may be ashamed of their slander."
You should react to slander by become more holy. But no matter how good you become, no matter how holy and righteous you become, no matter how loving you become—you cannot stop slander. Indeed, the more you grow in those characteristics the more the slander against you may grow. I already mentioned how they accused Jesus of casting out demons by the prince of demons. Jesus was perfect and He was the most slandered man of His day.
The fact that Jesus didn't tell them anything other than the fact that He knew how they were slandered reminds me of the words of 1 Peter 2:21–23,
"To this you were called,
because Christ suffered for you,
leaving you an example,
that you should follow in his steps.
'He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.'
When they hurled their insults at him,
he did not retaliate;
when he suffered, made no threats.
Instead, he entrusted himself
to him who judges justly."
You really can do anything about slander against you so just give it to God. I think that's the idea behind Jude's words in Jude 1:9. He said,
"But even the archangel Michael,
when he was disputing with the devil
about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring
a slanderous accusation against him,
but said, 'The Lord rebuke you!'"
Hans Rheydt Währisch says of this, (Revile, Blaspheme, Slander, NIDNTT, 3:345)
"The archangel was deputed to bury the body of Moses, though Satan did his best to prevent him, claiming as lord of the material order that the body was his, and threatening to accuse Moses of murdering the Egyptian (cf. Exod. 2:12). The point of the observation is that even the archangel Michael did not respond with like reviling but committed the responsibility for rebuking Satan to God, using an imprecation found in Zech. 3:2."
It may be all right in certain situations to attempt to answer the slander, but in general it seems that what God wants us to do is leave it to Him to vindicate us. This seems to be the thought of Psalm 31:13–18 as well.
"For I hear the slander of many;
there is terror on every side;
they conspire against me
and plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, You are my God.
My times are in your hands;
deliver me from my enemies
and from those who pursue me.
Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.
Let me not be put to shame,
O LORD, for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and lie silent in the grave.
Let their lying lips be silenced,
for with pride and contempt
they speak arrogantly
against the righteous."
The second thing our text shows us about slander is that
it often comes from places where it shouldn't.
The slander was coming from the Jews, from God's chosen people. They of all people should have recognized Jesus and believed in Him. They of all people should have known that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. They of all people should have been joining themselves to the Christians of Smyrna and together been praising God.
But they didn't. They showed themselves to be enemies. As the apostle Paul said about the Jews in Romans 11:28–29
"As far as the gospel is concerned,
they are enemies on your account;
but as far as election is concerned,
they are loved on account of the patriarchs,
for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable."
They of all people should have accepted Jesus. Paul wanted them to. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 9:1–6
"I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying,
my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit
— I have great sorrow and
unceasing anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were cursed
and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,
those of my own race, the people of Israel.
Theirs is the adoption as sons;
theirs the divine glory, the covenants,
the receiving of the law,
the temple worship and the promises.
Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced
the human ancestry of Christ,
who is God over all, forever praised! Amen."
We should love the physical descendants of Abraham. They were so privileged! We owe so much to them. But if they're not saved, they are not on our side. They may become God's people again in the future by being saved. According to Romans 11 they can be grafted in again. But in Smyrna the Christians didn't see that.
The rejection of Christianity by the Jews of Smyrna must have been very difficult for the Christians to deal with. The Christians at Smyrna had received the gospel from Jews. Mostly likely they received it from the apostle Paul. Paul had told them about Jesus, a Jew, who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah.
Yet to have the majority of the Jews not only reject the gospel, reject Jesus, but turn against them in great opposition—it must have been a great trial to them. As David said in Psalm 55:12–14,
"If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were raising himself against me,
I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed
sweet fellowship as we walked
with the throng at the house of God."
The Christians of Smyrna found it difficult to deal with the slander of the Jews. Perhaps it put doubt in their mind about the truth of the gospel and caused them to fear.
The same can happen to us if those who should be supporting Christianity deny it.
Does the fact that many scientists today don't believe in God cause you to doubt? Does it cause you to question yourself, your beliefs?
After all, scientists should be leading the world in praising God for His creation. Vern Poythress writes, (Redeeming Science, p. 26)
"Scientists must believe in scientific law in order to carry out their work. When we analyze what this scientific law really is, we find that scientists are constantly confronted with God himself, the Trinitarian God, and are constantly depending on who he is and what he does in conformity with his divine nature. In thinking about law, scientists are thinking God's thoughts after him."
But many scientists don't believe in God. And they are not merely not believing—but many of them are very vigorous in their unbelief and very emphatic that we should not believe.
But just as the rejection of Jesus by the majority of the Jews should not have shaken the faith of the Smyrnan Christians, so too, the unbelief of scientists should not shake your faith. Like the ancient Jews, they are blinded by their unbelief. In spite of all their brilliance, in spite of their great intellects—they are missing the most important thing. As Psalm 111:10 says,
"The fear of the LORD
is the beginning of wisdom;"
The problem with fallen human beings is not just intellectual. If that was the case would have seen that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and believed in Him. If that was the case scientists would recognize the Trinitarian God of the Bible and would be leading us in His praise. The problem with fallen human beings goes way beyond the intellect. It's a problem of the heart, of being sinful, of loving sin, of hating the true God, of being blinded by Satan and being taken captive to do his will. This should not surprise us, nor cause us to doubt, whether it happens to Jews, Gentiles or scientists.
On the other hand, the fact that this slander came from a place where it shouldn't also shows us that the Smyrnan Christians needed to recognize that
the Jews who were slandering them were enemies of Christ.
Dennis E. Johnson writes, (Triumph of the Lamb, p. 74)
"Though ethnically descended from Israel's patriarchs, the opponents' actions show that they are not God's people but Satan's synagogue. God shows covenant faithfulness to families through the generations, but in the last analysis the people of God are defined Christocentrically, not genealogically. The issue is not birth from the flesh, but from the Spirit (John 3:6)… Gentiles, once not a people, have been called to become 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession' (1 Peter 2:9-10)"
As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 2:28–29,
"A man is not a Jew
if he is only one outwardly,
nor is circumcision merely
outward and physical.
No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly;
and circumcision is circumcision
of the heart, by the Spirit,
not by the written code."
As he also said in Romans 9:6–8,
"It is not as though God's word had failed.
For not all who are descended
from Israel are Israel.
Nor because they are his descendants
are they all Abraham's children.
On the contrary, It is through Isaac
that your offspring will be reckoned.
In other words, it is not the natural children
who are God's children,
but it is the children of the promise
who are regarded as Abraham's offspring."
The Jews in John 8:31-47 argued with Jesus and claimed to be descendants of Abraham. But Jesus said of them,
"You belong to your father, the devil,
and you want to carry out
your father's desire.
He was a murderer from the beginning,
not holding to the truth,
for there is no truth in him.
When he lies,
he speaks his native language,
for he is a liar and the father of lies."
The church is the true Israel.
As David E. Aune writes, what Jesus says here, (Revelation, p. 175)
"implies that Christians are the true Israel…"
Jesus draws the spiritual battle lines differently than where many Christians draw them today. For example, many Christians who hold to the dispensationalist view, (Chafer) believe that God has two distinct purposes for two different groups of people. God has purposes and promises for Israel that are essentially earthly blessings, and they will be fulfilled on this earth at some time in the future. He also has heavenly promises and purposes for the church and these promises will be fulfilled in heaven. The distinction between these two groups will be seen especially in the millennium when Israel will reign on earth and God's people but the church will already have been taken up into heaven. They view the church as a kind of 'parenthesis' between the Old Testament Israel and the future Israel that will reign in the millennium.
Now I do want to say that that is possible and that many fine Christians believe that. But I don't see it in Scripture. I believe that the church includes believers of both the Old Testament and the New Testament eras and that they compromise one body of Christ. There are not two peoples of God, but one.
Paul's words in Romans 9 imply that when the Jewish people, the literal descendants from Abraham, who are saved in large numbers in the future, (Romans 11) will not constitute a separate people of God, but will be 'grafted back into their own olive tree'. (Romans 11:24)
Hebrews 8 is also instructive here. Hebrews 8:8–10 says,
"But God found fault
with the people and said:
The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain
faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will make
with the house of Israel after that time,
declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people."
Now what's noteworthy about that quote is that the writer is quoting from Jeremiah 31:31-34. He quotes the Lord's promise that He will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah and applies that new covenant to the church. He says that the new covenant is the covenant of believers in the church. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the writer to Hebrews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sees the church as the true Israel of God to which the Old Testament promises see their fulfillment. There is one people of God.
What this means is that we should be praying for the conversion of the Jews and not looking for the promises of the Old Testament to be fulfilled in them as unbelievers. The one thing preeminent thing the Jewish people today need is to know Jesus. That's what we should be praying for. Outside of Jesus they are lost. Outside of Jesus the promises don't apply to them.
Lastly, for those who are not Christians, this means that
if you're not in Christ you belong to the synagogue of Satan.
You're doomed as you are. If you're not worshipping Jesus, you're worshipping at the altar of Satan. You're doomed without Jesus. You need to go to Jesus.