Church Under Pressure – Revelation 2:8-11 (Smyrna)

Three weeks ago we talked together about the letter to the church at Ephesus.  We saw a church that was faithful with all the theology, was orthodox, stood up for what was right, but lost its love for Christ and the resulting compassion for people.  We saw how relevant these letters are for us.  There is so much to learn from them.  We also noted how Christ’s threat for removing the candle of this central, most powerful church took place as the center moved to Rome and Constantinople, and eventually Ephesus disappeared completely.  That strikes me as amazing.  The Apostle Paul established Ephesus and stayed there three years later.  The Apostle John was there for many years.  Christian tradition is that he took Jesus’ mother Mary to live out the end of her life there.  How could a church with those influences fail?

John began his apocalyptic letter to the churches this way, (1:3) “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”  These words were read in the 7 churches of Asia Minor at the end of the first century, and have been read in churches ever since.  Each church is called to “take to heart what is written in it.  Let’s hear Christ’s words to the church at Smyrna and to us:

Rev 2:8-11

“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. 9 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. 10 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. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Those who are victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Background & context

We noted that Ephesus was the 3rd or 4th largest city in the whole Roman Empire.  Smyrna was not far behind in size, wealth and significance.  Unlike Ephesus, Smyrna still exists today.  The modern city is called Izmir, and is the 3rd largest city in Turkey.  It is located 40 miles north of what was Ephesus, a sea port on the Mediterranean.  Izmir also has an active Christian community – continued through all these years.  And it is still a small minority of people often under pressure.

Roman Smyrna was a fiercely patriotic city.  300 years before John wrote Revelation, in 193 BC, Smyrna was the first city in Asia to build a temple to the goddess Roma.  The city jumped on the bandwagon before Roman Caesars even declared themselves divine.  This was a proudly Roman City.

The local citizens enjoyed the peace and riches of Rome, and they responded with devotion and worship.  In John’s day, the Roman Caesar called himself “Savior and Lord.”  The  Caesars demanded that their citizens worship them as gods.  That meant a pinch of incense was thrown on the alter in the temple while saying “Domanie et Deus” – Lord and God.  For most of the people in the empire this was not a big deal.  They worshiped many gods anyway.  But for Christians and for Jews, this was idolatry.

There was a large Jewish community in Smyrna that had been there for a very long time.  They supported the empire with their taxes and gifts, and achieved enough influence to be exempted from worshiping the emperor.  They had made the kind of compromises with the religions around them that Jesus called them the Synagogue of Satan.   That community was vehement in separating themselves from the Christians who simply refused to worship Caesar.   They proclaimed only Jesus as Lord.  They  preached that Jesus was the Messiah that the Jewish scriptures pointed to.  So they were caught in the middle.  Christians were seen as traitors to Rome, and because of this they were also compromising the special exemption that the Jewish community enjoyed.  The result was the Jewish community did everything it could to separate themselves from the Christians.  So the Christians were under pressure and persecuted from both sides.

Jesus addresses his church

“To the angel (or messenger leader) 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.”  This is a letter of encouragement and comfort to people who were suffering.  As we go through the words of the risen Christ, we note that the other letters include his criticism regarding failures of the churches: Laodicea is chided for being lukewarm, and Ephesus for having lost its first love.  Each were told to repent or their lamp stand would be removed from among the churches.  There is no such criticism or threat here.

The Son of God, who knows suffering, comes to a people under great pressure by immediately assuring them that he knows the beginning and end of things.  He can see the whole picture.  He looks at people in a time of pain but is also being able to see the end of their pain.  He is at once the First and the Last.

“I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich.”  Even though Smyrna was a very wealthy city, the Christians were poor because they were being pressured with prejudice and slander from both the Roman and Jewish communities.  They very likely faced prejudice, hatred, loss of business and loss of jobs because they were not on board with Roman idolatry.  It is even harder to be poor while surrounded by wealth.  The contrasts become oppressive.  We can imagine that a fiercely patriotic community would look down with suspicion and hatred on those who refused to acknowledge Caesar as god.

Jesus continues, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”  Both “Satan” and “devil” are used in this passage.  They literally mean adversary and slanderer.  These Jews chose to defend their position by being adversary and slanderer against the Christian Church.             These Christian were rich in courageous faith, resisting and overcoming.  Jesus said to them that they are materially poor but they were rich in spirit, in faith, in devotion, in knowing the Christ who knows the beginning and end, the one who identifies with them because he suffered and died and rose again.  “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.  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”

            What is he saying?  We hear his encouragement.  The statement about suffering persecution for 10 days means that it is for a limited amount of time, that God will stop it.  They need to be courageous and faithful because they are being reassured that God is ultimately in control and will put an end to it, and that God has guaranteed eternal life for them.  He said, “Be faithful even to the point of death.”

The church in Smyrna was so faithful that Jesus had no criticism of them.  But isn’t this the place at which we start lose touch with the letter.  We could identify with some of the struggle in Ephesus or the lukewarmness in Laodicea – but facing persecution?  Suffering?  Seeing our families suffer because of our faith and faithfulness?  We think about the persecuted church.  We have the candle up here.  We put the modern paraphrase of this letter in the bulletin to get us to think about it.  Still it doesn’t really compute for us, does it?  In this country Christians yell “persecution” if they are slightly inconvenienced.

Even then, we are not without suffering in our lives.  We are aware of suffering here.  How does that fit?  How do we begin to think about all of this?  Let’s reflect a bit theologically and ethically.  The first question is: where is God in all of this?  Christ seems to be saying that he is going to jump in at the right time – at the end of the symbolic 10 days – a definite, predetermined period.  God is ultimately in control, but is it God’s will?  Just saying, it is God’s will doesn’t really solve it for us, does it?

There are a couple levels to all of this – all of it surrounded by God’s grace; he is ultimately sovereign.  (repeat)  However, the first thing we see is that there are many events that happen in our lives that are “contrary to God’s revealed will – against what God wants and commands.”  The drunk driver who kills innocent by-standers or people in another car, murder, suicide, adultery, racism, crime – these acts of violence are against the revealed will of God.  “They are the result of the bad use of freedom which sours into chaos and menace.  The mystery of the real freedom that God designed into our human journey has made human evil possible just as that same mystery of design has made faith and hope and love possible too.” (The Communicator’s Commentary, Palmer, p. 133)

“However, evil has an even larger dimension than simply the bad choices that we make as human beings.  There is a cosmic dimension which this letter to the church at Smyrna puts in to sharp focus.”  It is not just people’s fault that we suffer diseases, etc. What about cancer?  What about Alzheimer’s? In Smyrna we see the result of people’s choices and “Satan” teaming up to persecute these Christians.  Again, what is clear here is that both are bounded by the greater boundary of Almighty God.  The Christ who speaks has the power over life and death.  He is the Lord – seeing the First and Last, the beginning and the end, and he gives the crown that is life.

“Don’t be afraid.”  But they had every reason to be afraid.  Poverty – prison – the arena – martyrdom. When we look at the suffering around us, even if not because of faith: cancers, broken relationships, degenerative diseases, strokes, disappointments, uncertain economic times with social and political reactions; do we have reason to be afraid?   In Smyrna they suffered with poverty, stolen businesses, imprisonment, even death.  We suffer with our broken humanity.  We want to cry out to God.  Why me?  Why don’t you do something?  Why do you let this happen?  Where are you?

Fully ½ of the Psalms in the Bible are laments – the psalmists crying out to God in their distress – hurt, angry, fearful.  At one point David cried out: What good is it if I die?  Will my dead bones praise you?  God does not resent our questions and understands our fears.  Still we hear the risen, glorified Christ reassure us.  “Do not be afraid.  The suffering will be for 10 days – a limited amount of time.  I am the one who died and is alive again.  I am the first and the last.  I will give you the crown of life.  No judgment – not even the 2nd death will touch you.  Be faithful and overcome.”

            Be faithful.  Trust me.  Do not be afraid.  It will not always be this way.  When we ask all those hard questions in our suffering, the only answer is to be faithful and overcome.  There are no answers to “why” and “why me.”  Faithfulness tests our patience, our trust, our continued growth in surrender and faith.  When we are suffering, maybe even in our own depression or discouragement, if it feels like it is always going to be this way we sink into despair.  If we are certain there is light at the end of the tunnel, if there is hope, if there is something to hang on to, we can overcome.  We can trust.  We can be faithful – if just for today, one day at a time.  Life is difficult — it is not easy.

Jesus said, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  And again he said that this is really important to hear: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  We note the plural, to all the churches – even to us.  The Apostle John who wrote this discipled a man named Polycarp.  Polycarp became the Bishop of Smyrna.  He served this church into old age, and was considered to be the father of the churches in that part of the world.  When he was in his late 80s he was taken by Roman authorities in Smyrna and brought into the city circus where Christians were tortured and executed.   We actually have manuscripts  from Roman historians on how this was done. The Governor interrogated him in front of the crowds and tried to frighten him into renouncing Jesus.  He threatened Polycarp with wild beasts and then with being burned to death.  Polycarp’s response became a rallying cry for Christians in the first century.  He said, “86 years I have served him [Christ] and he never did me any harm.  How then can I blaspheme him who saved me? Do whatever it is you are going to do.”

            His martyrdom had a huge unifying influence on Christians and his courage brought growth to the church in Smyrna.  The difficult truth is that we are to faithfully live our lives to the fullest, and at the same time keep the perspective that this is not all there is.  That is the panic in our society, isn’t it? People are grabbing for anything that will give them a sense that there is more joy or hope or pleasure or excitement.  They think this is all there is.  .

There are those who would have us believe that being Christian is all about prosperity, a pain-free life,  as if it is a life that God owes us.  The truth is that life is difficult and we are broken people surrounded by others who are less than honorable, and we live in a world distorted and broken by evil and the influenced by principalities and powers – that same adversary and slanderer that is evil in the world.  Our hope and comfort is not in a life of ease, but in the one who is First and Last, who died and is alive again, who is the boundary of grace around our lives, who will give us the crown of life.  To him we are faithful because he won the victory and makes us more than conquerors who overcome the sufferings of this life.

I know, some of you want me to end by telling you it will all be OK tomorrow.  We, after all are American materialist who believe in the dreams of prosperity, success and happiness.   The eternal Christ promises life beyond our dreams, and calls us to be faithful to him, to overcome for this time – sometimes one day at a time.  He promises that whatever our suffering, it will not last forever.  He promises the joy of life.  He calls us to overcome in our faithfulness.  Here is a trust and faith that is greater than our suffering.