October 13, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:40 in the audio file.
Or, Christians Only Have One Life to Suffer
It is possible to learn by watching others who have problems. It is also possible to learn from those who don’t. The church in Ephesus had problems, Jesus called them to repent, and the Spirit calls everyone with an ear to hear and learn. The church in Smyrna had a different sort of problem, a kind that didn’t require repentance. Likewise, the Spirit calls us to learn, and to conquer like Smyrnaeans.
Prior to last week I had never thought about being like a Smyrnaean. I am now.
Of the seven messages to the churches in Revelation 2-3, the message to the church in Smyrna is the shortest. According to history, Smyrna was the smallest of these seven cities. It was the operational base for no apostle; we don’t even know for sure who started the church there. This is the only place in the Bible that Smyrna is mentioned (along with 1:11 where Jesus first named all the cities).
The city itself was 30 or more miles north of Ephesus, another port city like Ephesus on the Aegean Sea. They boasted a large mountain and good trade and claimed to be the home of Homer. Mostly they boasted in worshipping the Roman Emperors. In AD 26 Smyrna won a bidding competition to build a temple to the Emperor Tiberius (Tacitus, Annals, Book IV), and their allegiance to Rome was well known. This would have been an easy place for Christians to compromise in order to keep themselves out of trouble.
But Jesus has no reason to call the church to repent. This doesn’t mean that Christians in Smyrna were sinless, but it does mean that as a community they were shining bright as a lampstand. Of the seven churches, only the Smyrnaean and Philadephian churches received no call to repent.
The Smyrnaeans were not cold souls like the Ephesians. They were not flirting with false teaching and idolatry and sexual immorality like those in Pergamum and Thyratira. They were not dead in good works like those in Sardis, or lukewarm like those in Laodicea. The Smyrnaeans were the kind of Christians that every Christian should want to be like. And yet they would have had a hard time convincing other believers to make Smyrna a destination.
The message to the Smyrnaeans follows the pattern of the other messages, starting with a fitting description of Jesus.
“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 keep thinking about what angels Jesus tells John to write to. While there is something to be said for the idea of seven different messengers taking these messages from the island of Patmos, where John was exiled, back to the cities on the mainland, it introduces more questions than it answers. How did these human messengers coordinate their travel to Patmos, or did they come individually? Did all seven start in Ephesus, but drop off by one until the last and lone messenger made it to Laodicea? I only have a small dogmatic in the fight, but I still think a heavenly rather than a human being fits with the vocabulary and supernatural context of the revelation.
Jesus identifies Himself with another part of the initial vision, this time from 1:18, where He also added that He held the keys of Death and Hades. The first and the last picks up Old Testament descriptions for Yahweh, the LORD, that describe His ever-existence and omni-control (such as Isaiah 44:6). As the first He is the grounds for what happens, as the last (ὁ ἔσχατος) He is the goal for what happens. As first, nothing was before Him. As last, nothing is beyond Him.
What is especially fitting to the Smyrnaean Christians is that Jesus, as the first and the last, is also the one who died and came to life. This is a historical truth, but here it is a glorious title. The good news includes the details, and they are of first importance: the eternal, cosmos-ordering Logos took on flesh. And also, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, He was buried, He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). We need to know it for sake of our forgiveness. But the Smyrnaeans, and all those with ears to hear, needed it for sake of their faithfulness to death.
Jesus is the one who walks among the golden lampstands, so He knows what is happening in and to His churches. He’s attentive to their troubles.
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
There are four types of tribulation in verses 9-10, with tribulation or “affliction” or “pressure” as a general category. When Jesus tells them that they are about to suffer in verse 10, He explains that the tribulation was about to pick up.
Tribulation can look like 1) loss of money and material possessions, 2) loss of reputation, 3) loss of freedom, and up to the 4) loss of physical life. Jesus knew that the Smyrnaeans were already facing the first two, and He exhorts them in preparation for the last two.
The first pressure was poverty. There are two typical Greek words for lack of money and material goods, and this one ( πτωχεία) is often used in contexts of extreme deprivation; reduced to the status of beggars. Because of how Jesus connects poverty with slander, it is likely that the Christians in Smyrna were losing jobs and business opportunities due to their unwillingness to just join the system. Their poverty wasn’t because they were slaves, it was because they were the Savior’s.
Jesus adds, however, an important parenthesis. He knows the bottom line of their bank accounts, both of them, the tangible and the spiritual: (but you are rich). This is not figurative richness, like something that the Smyrnaeans were supposed to feel. It is actual but spiritual and eternal richness. It’s not that they were in a condition of having something like riches, they did really have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3), and “the riches of his glorious inheritance” (Ephesians 1:18). It’s why James asked his beloved brothers, “has not God chose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5).
But on earth their treasures were being taken, or at least money was lost because of their love for and loyalty to Jesus as Lord.
Such loyalty to Christ as Lord made some jealous, but not in a Kuyperian Dispensational (Romans 11:11) sort of way. The second kind of tribulation was loss of reputation: and the slander of those who say that they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
There was a good size population of Jews in Smyrna, that is the genetic, nationally-identifiable kind of Jews. During this time of the Roman Empire, Jews received special dispensation not to worship Caesar as long as they didn’t try to upset the political apple cart. Jesus said that there were some who say that they are Jews, in the physical sense, but are not in the spiritual sense. John heard Jesus say something similar in John 8. They claimed that Abraham was their father (which he was in one way) and Jesus told them that Satan was actually their father (which was true in a different way). That same was true of the Jews in Smyrna.
A few early church writers recorded that the Jews were jealous of the apparent successes of the church (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, referenced by Beale), including some Jews who converted and worshiped Jesus as the Messiah. So the Jews not only exposed Christians as trouble makers, they even resorted to slander, to telling lies, for sake of harming the Christians. Jesus said that such behavior identifies them as a synagogue of Satan, an interesting description since Satan (Σατανᾶ) means “adversary.” The Jews colluded with the Romans, or at least reported, Christians for being a threat to the system.
Jesus exhorts His congregation in Symrna:
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into 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.
Suffer and tribulation are synonyms for painful pressure. Jesus does not rebuke them and tell them to stop fearing, but He does urge them: Don’t fear. He describes the reasons why they would be tempted to fear, and then gives a few reasons why they shouldn’t.
Some of them were about to lose their freedom: the devil is about to throw some of you into prison. Prison was usually a means, not a long-term end during this time. Prison was used to coerce people, or as a holding ground before a trial or before killing people, which is implied here. The devil (διάβολος) is a second name used for Satan, here with an emphasis on “accuser, slanderer.” The devil himself wasn’t binding and dragging, but the devil was behind it.
One reason not to fear is to know the purpose for the tribulations: that you may be tested. The loss of material goods as well as the loss of reputation were also tests, but the possible imprisonment intensified the test. Don’t be surprised by it (see also 1 Peter 4:12); this is what shows the genuineness of faith and even purifies faith.
Another reason not to fear is to know the duration: and for ten days you will have tribulation. We have no historical record of a unique persecution in Smyrna that lasted for ten days. This has caused a number of interpreters to conclude that ten days doesn’t mean ten days. Some go so far as to say that ten days referred to ten successive stages of persecution by ten Caesars. Some say that days stands for “years” so that this was a decade-long persecution. Others say that it symbolizes a complete time of some shortish duration.
But what about this message makes it seem like ten days should not be taken as a week and a half? If “days” doesn’t mean days, the does “poverty” really mean poverty, and “prison” really mean prison? Does it mean “death” doesn’t really mean death, or “life,” life?
“Nowhere was life more dangerous for a Christian” (Thomas).
Jesus calls the Smyrnaeans to endure: Be faithful unto death. Not every Christian was going to prison, just some of you, and not necessarily all of those were going to face capital punishment. But the finish line was death. Don’t be loyal to Christ partially, even if it’s a high percentage.
The last reason provided here not to fear is to know the promise: Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life. This is the victor’s crown rather than a royal crown, a prize or reward. This is winning. This is eternal life, just as eating from the tree of life (2:7), and it goes with the final extended exhortation.
Again, at the end of each direct message to a church, a general exhortation is given with a different twist on the promise.
He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.
There is no question that Jesus and the Spirit equate conquering with refusal to compromise. Overcoming is overcoming poverty and slander and prison and martyrdom by trusting the first and the last, who died and came to life. Conquering is conquering like Christ, which includes suffering like, and for, Christ.
I do believe that as God blesses believers, blessing them with material goods not just poverty (see: Psalm 112:1-3; 1 Chronicles 29:12), and blesses them with a good reputation not just being slandered (see: Proverbs 22:1; 1 Timothy 3:7), and blesses us with civic freedoms rather than imprisonment (see: Psalm 68:6; 146:7), and even with long life rather than pot-smashing death (see: Deuteronomy 6:2; Psalm 91:16; Proverbs 3:16), He will make the Jews jealous and grant them repentance to life.
However, we are being tested in gains given by God and also in our losses, by obvious blessings and by giving up obvious blessings because of our spiritual ones.
JustConquer Promise #2: Christians only have one life to suffer.
The second death is explained a little more in Revelation 20:14 and 21:8 (see also Daniel 12:2 and John 5:29).
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
It doesn’t mean that believers won’t be hurt by the “first death.” The exhortation not to fear wasn’t based on getting out of suffering, but that Christians only have one life to suffer. He who is “the first and the last” knew what was coming, and chose for the Smyrnaeans to just conquer death.
Polycarp became bishop of Smyrna in AD 115, and was martyred in Smyrna c AD 153, accused by the heathen and Jews, burned on the Sabbath (Osborne). Even though this wasn’t during the ten-days testing, Polycarp is a good example of being faithful to death.
There is something compelling about a people who are really soul rich. These were a non-fussy people. Jesus gives no word of rebuke, no call for their repentance. And yet wouldn’t we rather be the Ephesians, threatened by Jesus rather than comforted by Jesus and threatened by haters? But in fact, we should want to be like the Smyrnaeans.
When you suffer troubles (that are not a result of you foolishly poking a hornet’s nest), you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. As you share in His death, you will share in His resurrection. As you share in His sufferings, you will share in His glory (1 Peter 4:12-13). Entrust your soul to your faithful Creator while doing good.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7, ESV)