An odd thing happens when God begins to really move in a family or a church or a city. The most angry and even violent reaction against it often comes from religious people. You would expect the opposite, that it would be those who dont believe that attack those who do believe. But until a spiritual awakening does to them some kind of financial or political harm, unbelievers really dont care what believers do. They just want to be left alone. But not religious people. For them a move of God becomes a personal threat and they will do whatever they can to stop it. St. Paul was a classic example of this. As faith in Jesus began to spread, this rabbi did everything in his power to stop it, going to great lengths to imprison and even execute believers (Ac 8:1-3; 9:1, 2). Then when he himself converted, those who had been his religious friends just days before tried to kill him (Ac 9:19-25). This scenario has been repeated over and over in different settings around the world throughout history. Those who claim the loudest to know God become His relentless opponents. Why is this? We need to understand it because this is exactly the problem facing believers in the city of Smyrna, and frankly its a phenomenon we still face today.
The situation in Smyrna (2:8-11)
Smyrna was a seaport about 35 miles north of Ephesus. The church there had been persecuted by Jews living in that city (v 9) and was about to enter a season of intensified persecution probably from the Roman government. Many would soon be arrested and thrown in prison (v 10). The Lord says He knows that following Him had brought them suffering. Many were now poor, probably through loss of jobs, being abandoned by spouses and disinherited by parents, raids on their homes and fields, or confiscation of property by authorities (He 10:32-34). And not only had many been impoverished, but they also had to endure listening to the blasphemies spoken against Jesus, especially from Jews who rejected Him as Messiah. Jesus says this hatred toward Him only proved that Satan had deceived them. Their hearts had grown so hard they were no longer worthy to be called Jews.
Jesus faced this same phenomenon
As we read the gospels we see that Jesus didnt have conflict with sinners, in fact, they were drawn to Him. His opposition came from religious people and His harsh statements were directed at them.
Listen: John 8:19, 39-59 If God were your Father, you would love Me
Strong religious feelings are not the same as knowing God. In fact, religion is often a hindrance to knowing the true God. Why?
Why was a gathering of Jews in Smyrna persecuting the followers of the Jewish Messiah?
I think the answer is quite simple: another powerless religion is really no threat at all. We can arrogantly dismiss its followers as misguided and ignore them. But when God actually shows up and does miracles and changes lives, it provokes fear in religious hearts. If God is blessing you then I must be on the wrong path, and unless Im humble enough to admit it and change then my only option is to destroy the evidence. Here are two classic examples:
The man born blind (Jn 9:30-34)
Lazarus (Jn 12:9-11)
In Romans chapters 9-11 Paul is not teaching predestination, hes addressing a very serious question: Why have so few Jews responded to the gospel? After all God had done over the centuries to prepare them, why did so many reject their Messiah?
In 9:1-5 he expresses his amazement and sorrow
In 9:6-13 he says the problem is nominality. Many are religious but have no real faith.
In 9:14-29 he says God will use those Jews who reject Him for His purposes even as He used Pharaoh in Egypt. They have driven the gospel out to Gentiles who have been willing to receive it humbly. So God has given many
Gentiles mercy as He promised through the prophets.
In 9:30-10:4 he states the principle which separates those who will receive Gods mercy and those He hardens. He calls it the stumbling stone; and says the stumbling stone is this: some people find it offensive to be told that their own good works arent good enough. They refuse to step out and trust the righteousness of faith. And that decision ensures the hardening of their hearts.
Jesus tells us who is Gods elect, that is whom God has chosen to save.
John 6:36-45, 64, 65 All that the Father gives Me
John 7:16, 17 If anyone is willing to do His (the Fathers) will, he will know of the teaching whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.
Here are the elect: Luke 10:21
You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in your sight.
Then He illustrates this with a parable: Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee is proud, self-righteous and despises those who fail to meet his standards. Notice the standards the Pharisee sets for himself.
The effect of listening to Gods Word without humility, repentance and faith produces pride, self-righteousness and contempt for sinners.
But real Christians are constant repenters. The Holy Spirit convicts them all the time.
The Pharisee had to reinterpret the Bible so he could successfully obey it. He had to dumb it down to where he could fulfill it in his own mind.
This process of dumbing it down is what Jesus prevented by the Sermon on the Mount. In effect He said, heres what the 10 Commandments really mean (Mt 5:17-20, 21, 22, 27, 28, 33, 34, 37, 48).
The log in your own eye (Mt 7:3-5) is proud self-righteousness and judgementalism toward others.
What was Jesus goal for the Sermon on the Mount? To drive us into the arms of grace. To render all attempts at self-righteousness to be hopeless. To show us how desperately we need the righteousness that comes only by faith. In other words, to frustrate our attempts to become Pharisees.
Where have you seen a tendency toward self-righteousness in yourself? How do you deal with it when you spot it?
Do you ever feel jealous or condemned when God does something wonderful in another persons life? Why do those feelings come? Whats the proper response (hint: Ro 12:15; 1Co 12:26)?