Sunday, January 17, 2016

Letters from God: to the Church in Smyrna

“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. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

What would you do if we, as a church, got a letter directly from God? How would it impact the way we do things? Would it change the way you looked at life? Would you do things any differently? Two weeks ago, we began looking at the letters to the seven churches in Asia from the book of Revelation.

We started with the clarification that the angel mentioned wasn’t necessarily a supernatural being.  The word we see here “angel” is also rightly translated “messenger.” Which would make sense that the message was given to the messenger to transmit to the church.

And as we will see, Christ’s identification as “first and last, who died and came to life” is going to be important for the Christians of Smyrna. Before I get to that, let’s talk a little about Smyrna. Smyrna was a proud and beautiful, wealthy city with an impressive port that could be closed off in case of enemy attack.

They called it the “first city of Asia in size and beauty.” They had a strong alliance with Rome, and they benefited greatly from this relationship. But the Christians of Smyrna did not benefit from any of these circumstances. They were not wealthy; they were poor. Likewise, the alliance with Rome was not helpful to the Christians there during this time period. The Roman Emperor was in the midst of a empire-wide persecution of Christians. Just for accepting Christ, your very life was at stake. The Roman Emperor demanded full allegiance to Rome, even to the point of the deification of the emperor. They were required to confess “Caesar is Lord,” and if they didn’t, they would be executed.

So maybe you see where this is going. You have a minority Christian community, and because they refuse to confess Caesar as Lord, they are at best not allowed to work and at worst imprisoned and killed. So they have no way to earn money. So the Christians in Smyrna are extremely poor. But how does the Bible describe them? Though they were afflicted and impoverished, the Bible says they are rich. I want to let that soak in a little.

Though they have little to no money or property or possessions, they are accounted as rich. Now, I hear the United Methodist Christians in Lusaka described as poor. All the time. People tell me, “we can’t do (this and that) because the people are so poor.” I would like to counter that; the only reason you are poor is if you do not have a strong faith in Christ. Now, if you don’t know your Bible, if you are tossed to and fro by every new wave of so-called prophecy, if you know of Jesus but you don’t know Him personally, then you are poor. But if you know Jesus, if your faith is strong, then you are not poor, and you can accomplish all things through Christ who strengthens you. You don’t need some rich person in the West to do things for you. You only need Christ. This relates to James 2:5. “God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith[1] Those who are spiritually rich, even though they are materially poor, have a spiritual wealth that nobody can take away.

So we see the message to Smyrna contrasting between the wealthy Roman city and the poor Christians living there. It was said that the city was crowned “with porticoes and pictures, or even with gold in excess of what they needed,” but the Christians in Smyrna were promised the crown of life (v. 10). Listen to how James put it in James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

So this is a strong message to persecuted Christians. It can be very comfortable to be a Christian here in Zambia. When I meet someone for the first time, one of the first things someone asks is “where do you go to church?” Laws are very friendly to church-goers. It’s very nice to have such a Christian-friendly country, but I’ve noticed something. In my years in church in the United States and here in Zambia, I’ve noticed that here, where laws are Christian-friendly, it’s almost too easy to be a Christian. I wouldn’t wish persecution on anyone, but when it is so easy, people often do not invest as much. For our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria, they are all in. They have invested their lives. They could live or die today because of their faith. There is no question about their faith. But here, it’s a matter of preference. We can take it or leave it. Eh, whatever.

But Jesus is promising a crown of life to those who persevere. Now I want to get back to Jesus’ description of himself as the First and Last, as victorious over death. He chose those terms on purpose, to remind these persecuted suffering Christians that as he was victorious over death, so they, too, can face martyrdom knowing that faithfulness is rewarded with eternal life.[2] He is not calling them to do anything he himself has not already done. And he reminds them that after all things happen, he is there. The First and Last. The enduring Rock. The Keystone. The Sure Foundation.

But their poverty and Roman persecution weren’t the only things that were so troubling. We read that there were some who called themselves Jews who the Bible reveals are really a synagogue of Satan. There are many theories about who these people were – were they the same type of Jews who persecuted Paul? Were they Gentiles who had converted to Judaism, perhaps in order to avoid Roman persecution?

Or were they the Jews that Paul denounces in Romans 2:28-29 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

Whoever they are, it is clear that they are saying they are one thing, but they are behaving in a different way. You could say the same of people who call themselves Christians, show up for Church on Sunday, but they don’t behave any differently than non-Christians. These particular people were slandering Christians, literally blaspheming against them. They were probably even focusing persecution on Christians.

So in the face of all this, God has a command. In today’s culture, today’s evangelists would make you think he would say, “It’s going to be over soon. 2016 is your year of overcoming. It’s your year of prosperity and victory.” But he doesn’t say that. He says “More is coming. It’s going to get worse. But do not fear what you’re about to suffer.”

Our culture is full of false prophets who have built themselves a financial kingdom on the backs of such prophecies. But the Bible continually says, “In this life you will have trouble.” But it also says that those who stand firm, those who stay the course, those who persevere will be given a crown of life. It also promises that God will neither leave nor forsake his people. So 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.

[1] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 75). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 74). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.