The Church Kaleidoscope Meditations: 2. The Smyrna Experience: Persecution
Rev 2:8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write”
Speaker: To this church Jesus comes as the One who brings, “the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (v.8) As the “First and the Last” he is the eternal one of God, the one who was there with the Father at Creation (see Jn 1:3, Heb 1:2, Prov 8:27-31) and will be there at the end (see Rev 5:12,13, 19:11-16, 20:4, 22:1). He was there in heaven with the Father, he left heaven and came to earth (Jn 6:33,38,41,42,51), he died, rose from the dead and ascended back to heaven where he now rules in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2, 1 Cor 15:25). He is thus the One who has experienced this world and all its trials and suffered in it. He knows what this world is like and therefore he is able to empathize with those who go through similar things, he understands it all perfectly.
He Knows their Affliction: Because he is also the all-seeing One with the Father, he ‘knows’: “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.” (v.9) Again, I don’t want to go into the details here but just respond to the basic words. Jesus says he knows their afflictions, their sufferings, their trials, he knows it is sometimes a difficult life. The Greek word for affliction implies being crushed beneath a great weight.
He Knows their Poverty: But he also says he knows their poverty and the Greek word implies utterly destitute. There is a false teaching that links affluence with holiness, but that doesn’t accord with Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” (Lk 6:20) and “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3) These aren’t one and the same. When we are materially poor, we still can know the love of God and even His provision. In some parts of the world the affluence the West knows is absent and yet believers rejoice in the Lord. But there is also poverty of spirit, that awareness that outside of Christ I have nothing, and that is the start of the journey of blessings from heaven. We don’t know whether the Christians at Smyrna were materially poor or whether they simply felt poor in spirit, although in the light of their afflictions and suffering, it is more likely to be the latter.
He Knows their true state: “yet you are rich”. It is Jesus’ challenge to them to hold a right perspective. Yes, they may lack worldly wealth and they may feel down in the face of their struggles but the reality – and it is a truth we all struggle to hold at times – is that in Christ we are very well off. The apostle Paul said, “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19). These are spiritual riches. Elsewhere he spoke of “the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:7) James said, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith.” (Jas 2:5). The resources we have from heaven are unlimited. We have a relationship with the Father, we have a friend in the Son, and we have power in the Spirit. We have his provision and protection today and a home in eternity in the future. Wow! Lord, help us see the reality of this.
He Knows their Opponents: But he knows the causes of some of that opposition, and it is an opposition the apostle Paul experienced again and again, that of the opposition of his own people, the Jews: “I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan.” Even as Paul himself had been in his zealous ignorance, so many of the Jews opposed the early church who they saw as a threat to what they considered was the true faith. But Jesus doesn’t mince words. These Jews regularly attend Synagogue and appear to be religious, even pious and zealous but the truth is that they refuse to hear the word of God: “Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46) No, says Jesus, they think they attend the synagogue of Judaism but in reality the place they go to for teaching belongs to Satan! Wow! Again it is a call to hold a right perspective, to understand the truth of any situation.
He Knows their Future: Now comes encouragement if we dare call it that. Jesus doesn’t only know what has been happening, he also knows what is coming and he wants to prepare them for this: “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.” (v.10) Note some key parts of this. Testing. It will be instigated by the enemy but don’t be put off. Pass the test! Handle it well! Ten days. It will be of limited duration. Job 1 & 2 show us that God controls Satan and His instructions, if He allows him to test us, may be summarized as, “This far and no further.” i.e. it is always limited to what God’s will is. Be faithful. That is our calling, what we are to learn from such testing, that God’s resources are there for us in it, and His eye is watching over us throughout it, and His will decrees how long it lasts. To the point of death. People do die for their faith because death is not the end, and sometimes the Lord allows such things, e.g. James – Acts 12:2, and Stephen – Acts 7:60. But it may not be death, it may only appear that that is what is coming, e.g. Paul (2 Cor 1:8) but yet lives are preserved. We in the West may struggle with this but Christians in China disdain death. Who is the stronger?
Triumph: The triumph for the one who is victorious and overcomes and remains faithful is that their eternal future is guaranteed and death here on earth is merely a steppingstone to that: “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.” (v.11) Note, “to the churches”. It is what we said previously that this letter would be communicated across the whole area and therefore this is a call to every believer – including us – that we may die here but that simply leads us into eternity. The second death is destruction in the lake of fire (Rev 20:15) and we are expressly excluded from that. The message is loud and clear: don’t be afraid of death and what follows it, your eternity with God is guaranteed. The fact that you may die at the hands of enemy agents does not mean God has given up on you; to the contrary, it is because you stood strong and faithful and will be rewarded in heaven accordingly.
And Us? If we live in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century, these words my appear alien because we have had such comfy, cosy lives but that is not what many Christians around the world experience. Jesus’ teaching implied and stated that persecution was often common for believers (see Mt 5:10,12, 10:23, 24:9) and the apostle Paul echoed that (see 1 Cor 4:12, 2 Cor 4:9, Gal 5:11, 2 Tim 3:12). It is a part of Christian history, not always, but often. If we are not experiencing it, let’s be grateful and pray for those who are. In it all, let’s trust Him who reigns over all things, and seek, with His grace, to remain faithful through whatever comes. Amen? Amen!