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The Church of Smyrna speaks to the Confessing Church of Christ in This Darkening Hour: Mark Dankof on Tribulation, Remnant, and Martyrdom for the LMS-USA 2017

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Jesus Christ, the Logos, speaks to the Apostle John in exile on Patmos regarding the Church of Smyrna in Asia Minor: Revelation 2: 8-11.

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:  ‘The words of the First and the Last, who died and came to life.  I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a Synagogue of Satan.  Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.  Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”

Jesus Christ speaks to the Apostle John on Patmos (Revelation 2: 8-11)

(Pastor Mark Dankof’s presentation to the LMS-USA national conference in Wisconsin chronicled here is a condensed and edited version of his remarks delivered on June 9th, 2017. This presentation was preceded by previous lectures in the last two (2) decades, including Creeds and Confessions as Liturgy; The Famine, The Watchman, and The Remnant; The Chosen People of God:  Who are They?; and The Hands of Time and The Appearance of Logos.)

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The Logo of the LMS-USA and the Pillars of Luther’s Reformation: Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone.

 

     We have been privileged today to have two (2) fine presentations by Pastor Erickson and Pastor Spears. Pastor Erickson’s summation on The Early Church and the Need for Continuing Reform is an excellent overview of centuries of church history from Pentecost to the Protestant Reformation.  I especially value his repristination of a list of ancient heresies similar to my own presentation in Indianapolis in 1996, since those challenges to orthodox Biblical and Creedal theology continue to reappear in various forms and guises over time, especially in this 21st century milieu of heresy and apostasy in which the Remnant Confessing Church of Christ finds itself, especially in a post-Christian Western World which includes our own United States.

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Pastor Ralph Spears of Indianapolis, Indiana presents a paper on the Reformers and the Martyrs at the LMS-USA Conference in 2017.

     Pastor Spears’ presentation of The Reformers underscores the character of key figures in the 16th century and their traits which mirror Biblical reformers throughout redemptive history.  As he reminds us there, “Reformers are people of faith who lived and were willing to ‘lay down their lives for their conviction of faith.'” We will shortly see how the theme of Martyrdom in both of these fine discussions appears again in what I am about to share with the faithful people of Christ Lutheran Church in Chetek, Wisconsin from John’s Apocalypse (Revelation 2: 8-11).

     Let me say at the outset that we will not be discussing the dreadful developments in the Lutheran Church specifically and the American Church generally which have been sufficiently covered in previous conferences.  I will simply state again that in my lifetime, as American culture and life continues its precipitous downturn into the bottomless abyss, our own denominational tradition and affiliation has degenerated into an absurd dialectic between the apostate universalists, higher critical cynics, and Cultural Marxists on the left, and a compendium of isolationists and sectarians on the right for whom the use of the term evangelical is tragi-comic.  In the left-right dialectic in American Lutheranism today, rampant institutional political power struggles and pathology on both ends of the spectrum are strikingly identical.  The proclamation of the Gospel and Biblical teaching and instruction often seem but an afterthought, where everyday ministry to those starved for the Word, proclamation of forgiveness of sin in Jesus Christ and His love to all who believe, historic worship, and evangelical outreach and vision, are all too often lost in the shuffle of business-as-usual.  Jeremiah described this very sort of scene in the 6th century B. C. context of disaster which had befallen Jerusalem and ancient Judah as the Babylonian Exile and Temple Destruction unfolded:  “Her gates have sunk into the ground; He has ruined and broken her bars; her kings and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets find no vision from the Lord.” (Lamentations 2: 9)

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Pastor Mark Dankof, whose presentation on the Church of Smyrna in John’s Apocalypse instructs a segment of the Believing Remnant of the Confessing Church of Christ at the LMS-USA national conference.

     If this looks increasingly like the unfolding and impending state of the American Empire and Church it should.  The hour is increasingly late (Matthew 24).

     Where does all of this leave the Believing Remnant of the Confessing Church of Christ?  Put more directly this afternoon, where does this leave you and I as a part of such a fellowship and movement?  Where is God in all of this for you and me?  Where are his promises?  Where is hope for the present and the future? How does he provide for the Remnant when none of the present circumstances in history are favorable to our sustenance and survival?

     It is these questions to which we shall now turn.  The key prototypical Confessing Church for our purposes today is the Church of Smyrna in Asia Minor during John’s exile on Patmos courtesy of the edict of Emperor Domitian of Rome (AD 81-96). As already read, our text is Revelation 2: 8-11.

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Pastor Tylan Dalrymple of Christ Lutheran Church in Chetek, Wisconsin and the Subscriptional Clergy Roster of the LMS-USA.

     It is noteworthy that the exile of the Apostle was due to his refusal to acquiesce to the demands of the Roman Emperor that Domitian be venerated and worshiped as the virtual incarnation of God on earth.  Put slightly differently, John understood what was Caesar’s, and what belongs to Christ alone.  For that faith and confessional witness, he found himself in the Roman penal colony on Patmos, an island 4×8 miles in the Aegean Sea, 50 miles southwest of Turkey.  It is identically noteworthy that Smyrna (modern Izmir) was closely aligned with the Roman Empire and had a large, active, and hostile Jewish population in open hostility to the Gospel (see Romans 2: 28-29; Matthew 26: 57-27:44; Revelation 3:9 to the Church of Philadelphia). Confessing faith and witness in this context often led to incarceration and/or death.

     My counsel and admonition to all of us who are Remnant Believers today:  It is not hyperbole to understand and acknowledge the evidence of increasing hostility to the Gospel in a post-Christian America and Western World in the 21st century, accompanied by lawlessness, decadence, perversion, blasphemy, violence, deception and societal disintegration on a breathtaking scale.  The Satanic forces in play are reminiscent of those between 81-96 A. D. during the reign of Domitian.  The challenge to us is the same challenge posited to the Church of Smyrna, but so are the reassuring provisions of God to His people that underscore His sovereign control of events in history, and His love of those who are faithful.  The key point is this:  God’s people are entering what is eschatologically the most dangerous period in all of linear time and redemptive history (Heilsgeschichte).  We must be prepared for any contingency thrust upon us by Satan and the world.  But nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 31-39).

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Martin Luther: We are Justified by God Through Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone. (Pastoral Library: Christ Lutheran Church of Chetek, Wisconsin)

     Let me emphasize four (4) points from the Apocalpyse in today’s conversation about the assurances of God to the Israel of God, the Confessing Church of Christ, throughout time.

     The first (1) is this:  God provides for His people through select individuals who accomplish the Lord’s purposes for those purchased with the Blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Pastor Spears’ presentation and overview illustrated some key people throughout history who carried out God’s directives to provide for and nurture those otherwise in isolation and despair in a hostile world.  Look at the way in which the Word of the Lord during the persecution of believers during Domitian’s reign continues to be proclaimed through the selection of the Apostle John (Revelation 1: 1-3) on Patmos to reveal mysteries and reassure the People of God.  Tellingly, John states in 1:9 that, “I John, your brother and partner in the tribulation, and the kingdom, and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

(Ἐγὼ Ἰωάννης ὁ ἀδελφὸς ὑμῶν καὶ συνκοινωνὸς ἐν τῇ θλίψει καὶ βασιλείᾳ καὶ ὑπομονῇ ἐν Ἰησοῦ
ἐγενόμην ἐν τῇ νήσῳ τῇ καλουμένῃ Πάτμῳ διὰ τὸν λόγον τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ.)

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John on Patmos Pens The Apocalypse: Exiled Because of Resistance to the Emperor Worship Cultus of Domitian (A. D. 81-96).

     How much plainer can it be? Although we have no living Apostles or inspired writers of Scripture in our midst today, God continues to provide brothers and partners in the trials and tribulations of our lives as believers in this darkening age and world.  These brothers and partners are also ours not simply in trials and tribulations, but in the Kingdom of God both present and future.  Just look around this classroom. I recognize people here who joined me in the uphill fight to preserve the Biblical faith in our tradition over 30 years ago.  Among those in that category, I’m unbelievably the youngest one of the 4 still left and who still perseveres alongside these men.  Because of their faithfulness to the Gospel and their enduring friendships with me, I’ve been encouraged to continue when the temptation to give it up in these last 3 decades intensified.  Because I continued by the grace and provision of God alone, I’ve come to know many of the rest of you who have attended these conferences for 22 years now.  We are brothers and sisters in the trials and tribulations present and future.  Can we be any more blessed than this?

     Mysteriously, we possess the Kingdom of  God now, and yet not completely until the return of the Lord.  And how we presently possess the inspired, inerrant, inscripturated Word of God of the Prophets and Apostles, including John right now in our midst, assuring us of blessings present and future through Christ! This empowers God’s humble people, such as all of us gathered here in Wisconsin today, to rejoice in the midst of sorrow, to be confident in the midst of unspeakable trials and discouragements, and to have the faith which comes only from the Holy Spirit of God. Forget the numbers game of the Church Growth Movement in America.  Jettison the “Health, Wealth, and Prosperity” philosophies of the televangelists and the worship fads of an American Church that looks more like the world of sin, the flesh, and Satan with each passing week.  Embrace the joy of the Biblical Gospel, worship in continuity with the Confessing Church of Christ of the Ages, read and take to heart the Lutheran Confessions and what they affirm about sin and salvation only in Christ.  And be confident that God has not forgotten his Remnant People wherever they may be, as He has numbered the very hairs on our heads and has our names written in the Book of Life.

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30 years together in joint fellowship and proclamation of the Gospel in the Lutheran Church since 1987: Pastor John Erickson, Pastor Ralph Spears, Pastor Donald Thorson, and Pastor Mark Dankof (L to R).

     The second truism (2) is this:  God works through select groups of remnant believers throughout the trials and tribulatons of His people in the midst of hostile societies, natural disasters, wars and rumors of war, and upswings in Satanic activity throughout human history.  When we look for a select group of remnant believers in the past to serve as a prototype to be emulated by faithful Christians today in the midst of the perils of the 21st century, we need look no further than the Church of Smyrna.  What characterized this Confessing Church in the all seeing eyes and all knowing mind of our Lord Jesus Christ?  He states that, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a Synagogue of Satan.”  (Revelation 2:9)

(Οἶδά σου τὴν θλῖψιν καὶ τὴν πτωχείαν ἀλλὰ πλούσιος εἶ καὶ τὴν βλασφημίαν ἐκ τῶν λεγόντων
Ἰουδαίους εἶναι ἑαυτούς καὶ οὐκ εἰσίν ἀλλὰ συναγωγὴ τοῦ Σατανᾶ.)

     The characteristics of the Confessing Church of Smyrna are thus clearly discernable, as are the characteristics of the Remnant in historical and eschatological times of political, cultural, moral, economic, and theological disturbances which seek to devour those who are Christ’s and Christ’s alone.  There was and will be tribulation (θλῖψιν)There was and will be slander (βλασφημίαν) against God’s people until the end of linear time and redemptive history.  These slanders emanating from the Synagogue of Satan (συναγωγὴ τοῦ Σατανᾶ) are to be understood as a phenomenon manifested in both the 1st century and the 21st (see Romans 2: 28-29 and Dr. E. Michael Jones’ The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and its Impact in World History for the enumeration of the context of Revelation 2:9).  

     And yet with all of these sobering facts and developments, the Lord reminds the Church of Smyrna, and our gathering here today, that we are yet rich (ἀλλὰ πλούσιος εἶ )The world cannot know this richness, because it cannot know Jesus.  The world cannot know this richness, which can only be revealed by the Holy Spirit of God to the believer (I Corinthians 12:3).  Only the believer can possess all that is contained in this spiritual richness, juxtaposed in this case with worldly richness, and understand that tribulation, slander, and economic poverty cannot separate he or she from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 31-39).  This is the faith that leads to eternal life. This is the faith that remains when Emperors and Empires fade away in the twilight of time and space, be it the Babylonian version, the Medo-Persian version, the Greek version, the Roman version, or the American version as the years pass in this 21st Century.

     And make no mistake.  There is no doctrine of American exceptionalism here to the Biblical principles that have governed Empires and Nations from Genesis to Revelation to the present.

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St. Polycarp of Smyrna, rejecting Emperor Worship and the Synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9) for Faith in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ Only, Forever and Ever.

     The third truism (3) is this:  The Remnant Confessing Church that is poor but rich, sets a foundation for many fruits to be made manifest in the future glorification of God and the proclamation of His kingdom in Christ.  In the case of the Church of Smyrna of the 1st century, its foundation produced the 2nd century Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp (A. D. 69-155).  He is regarded as one of the 3 chief Apostolic Fathers in history, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.  It is no accident or coincidence of history that the name Polycarp literally means, “much fruit.” A disciple of the Apostle John, and ordained by him as a Bishop, we must turn to 3 primary sources for information about this embodiment of witness to the Crucified and Risen Christ whose life and death continue to resonate now, even as I speak.  These 3 sources are 1) The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a circular letter composed by the Church of Smyrna and distributed to the churches of Pontus; 2) Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, which I first encountered in my first year of theological study in California almost 40 years ago; and Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians.

     Let’s cut to the chase here.  If the issues of Emperor Worship and oppression of the Christian in the 21st century Western World’s Central States increasingly looks like the ideological matrix that exiled John to Patmos and executed Polycarp, can we envision ourselves having to make the ultimate choice of Christ or Caesar, Christ or Antichrist, under penalty of death for an evangelical confession and proclamation of faith?

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Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155).

     The subject of martyrdom came up in a systematic theology course I was taking in suburban Chicago years ago under Dr. Paul D. Feinberg at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  The question of Martyrdom for the Faith was under intense scrutiny and examination one particular day and lecture.  I can’t say to anyone that I thought I was brave enough then–or now–to follow in the footsteps of Polycarp or any of the other martyrs for Christ.  I will say to all of us here what Dr. Feinberg told me then in response to my questions and doubts about being able to cling to the Lord and witness to the truth under penalty of the ultimate sanction.  He said that we should never ask for the dying grace of God before we actually need it (Matthew 24: 9-14).  If or when we face contemporary versions of the Sanhedrin with its demands for recantation and capitulation, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit of God will give us the thoughts and the words to say when we are not capable of otherwise standing up to those who seek our very lives (Mark 13: 9-11; Luke 21: 12-15).

     Polycarp understood this; the Lord was faithful to him in his ultimate hour of need.  In the case of the former’s death, we read that:

In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong”, which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old or that he may have lived eighty-six years after his conversion. Polycarp goes on to say “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? 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.”

Polycarp was burned at the stake and was pierced with a spear for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. On his farewell, he said “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”

     These words have haunted me at night for almost 40 years since first reading them late one evening in a dormitory room on the highest peak in Berkeley, California that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco.  It was an irenic visual scene I enjoyed for almost a year.  But my night thoughts about the Apostle John and Polycarp of Smyrna were anything but irenic.  Would I really ever have what it took to confess the faith under their circumstances? 

     I don’t recall having read this sort of thing recently in any of Joel Osteen’s books I have perused at Barnes and Noble (laughter).  I couldn’t find a single thing on Polycarp when I checked several of their stores around San Antonio either.  His witness runs counter to everything I see in contemporary American “culture,” which like its ancient Roman counterpart is increasingly evil and antithetical to the Gospel.  But if we follow John’s witness on Patmos, and the subsequent witness of the 2nd century Bishop of Smyrna, we will experience the fruits of the endurance (ὑπομένω) that God promises His people in their darkest hours, and in the darkening skies of the present historical horizon (Matthew 24:13).

     Finally, there is the fourth truism (4) bequeathed to the Church of Smyrna by the Lord.  It is also your promise and mine :  “Be faithful unto death and I will give thee the Crown of Life” (Revelation 2: 10).

(γίνου πιστὸς ἄχρι θανάτου καὶ δώσω σοι τὸν στέφανον τῆς ζωῆς.)

     It is this foundation alone which gives us peace, the peace (εἰρήνη) which only the Lord gives and which the world and its Prince with his targeted tribulations and attacks can never know (John 16:33). We are guaranteed to experience these trials and tribulations, and an intensification of such in the context of the approaching eschatological signs of the end of the age.  But Jesus assures us he has overcome the world, an assurance He gives to the disciples just before experiencing the most agonizing death in all of history, a death to be followed by the evidence of his overcoming of sin and the world in the reality of the Empty Tomb.

     Take heart today my friends. Be encouraged. As deception, wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecutions and martyrdoms of believers, apostasy, evil, and lovelessness continue their present upswing (Matthew 24) leading to the appearance of the Antichrist in history, we will “overcome and will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11).

     We have gathered again in Wisconsin today to reaffirm the truths of God to His people in Christ, and to rejoice that as orthodox Lutheran Christians, we are but a small slice of the Confessing Church in history and presently, focusing only on the things of the Lord in Word and Sacrament and our love for one another, even in the midst of a nation and a world that increasingly does not know Him and which is coming to despise who and what we are.  We must be discerning about the truth and the hour.  We must be ready.  And together, we shall be.

(Ὁ νικῶν οὐ μὴ ἀδικηθῇ ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου τοῦ δευτέρου.)

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The Island of Patmos in a peaceful Aegean Sunset.