This post is the fourth in a series through the book of Revelation. The link below takes you to a video recording of this blog-post.
How does one endure hardship? And why? Why does God allow his people to undergo seasons of suffering? And where is God when it hurts? These are some to the questions that Jesus answers in the Revelation, a circular letter written by the apostle John to seven congregations in Asia Minor during the tyrannical reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92).
“Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? …You threaten me with fire that burns only for an hour… but you are ignorant of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. What are you waiting for? Bring on what you will!”
These were the last words St Polycarp, a famous martyr during another wave of heightened Roman persecution, revealing the grit and the attitude of the church in Smyrna. Polycarp was a pupil of the Apostle John, and probably the “angel of the church” (messenger or leader) in Smyrna whom Jesus was addressing in Revelation 2:8-11.
Smyrna, present-day Izmir in Turkey, printed coins which claimed it was “the biggest and most beautiful city in Asia.” This coastal city was prosperous because of the trade routes and its natural beauty. The town was filled with magnificent temples and statues – a number of these are well preserved today. The figure of Bacchus (Roman) or Dionysus (Greek), god of wine and immoral revelling, tells us much about the culture of the day. So also the statue Cybele, mother of the gods, reveal that in this city women were honoured or even venerated within certain people groups. The citizens of this Greek city were loyal to Rome, dedicating a temple to the goddess Roma around 195 BC. It also had a temple preserved for the Imperial Cult, devoted to the worship of the emperor.
Persecuted by the Jews. At the end of the first century (AD) Smyrna boasted a large community of Jews, bolstered by the migration of Judeans after the destruction of Jerusalem during The Jewish War (a significant rebellion against the Roman Empire, 66 AD – 73 AD). These Jews were especially hostile to Christians – in part because during the siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) Christian Jews fled the city (prompted by a prophetic Word from the Lord), just before the total destruction of the city and its temple. Also, the Jews viewed the worship of Jesus as an abomination. These Jews were often the first to hand known Christians over to the Roman authorities for punishment.
Poor Christians. In this city, as in the broader community, Christians were often excluded from the formal employment sector because of the refusal to partake in the worship of the gods of the guilds (first-century trade unions). In this pagan society, each guild had its god(s) who demanded tribute in exchange for prosperity. Since Christians refused to worship any other gods, conversion implied the end of their careers. The only jobs they could take were for the “cursed” in society: garbage removal, sewerage cleaning, the burial of the dead, etc. In the early Church, therefore, being Christian was synonymous to being poor.
The letter to Smyrna follows the same structure as the other letters: opening with a unique and personal Revelation of Christ to them, it complies with a commendation, a charge, then a warning and finally a promise of reward. However, note that this church receives no condemnation or correction from the Lord as the others. What an inspiration!
The Revelation of Christ (2:8). Christ reveals himself to this suffering community of believers as “The First and the Last” the Sovereign Lord over all creation, the Lord of Heavens’ Armies (Isaiah 44:5-6). He is indeed Sovereign over Emperor Domitian who claimed to be “king of kings and Lord of lords” – yes, He is even higher than the mighty Roman army!
But Christ further reveals himself as “He who died and yet lives”, as the One who conquered death itself – he did not avoid it, but endured and overcame it. By revealing himself in this way to these persecuted believers, Christ sets the tone for the rest of the letter. He comforts them that even if he does not save them from execution, death is not the end of their lives – as it was not the end of his. He lives forever, and they in him.
Commendation (2:2-3). As with the Ephesians, Christ commends the church in Smyrna for their faithful works. He affirms that they represent him well, even during the tribulation, despite their poverty, and under the incessant slander of the vengeful Jews. We can almost hear Jesus applauding them for their steadfast devotion to him in this harsh environment.
The hostility from the Jews in Smyrna is evident by Christ’s phrasing “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Contextually, he states that even though these Jews read the Torah, they are no different from those who worship at the Imperial temple or even Satan himself! Paul clarifies that a real Jew is not one by birth or circumcision, but one “inwardly, brought about by the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit” (Rom 2:29). The church is God’s real Jews, God’s chosen people.
As mentioned above, Christ has no correction, no condemnation for this congregation. He praises and encourages them to keep on doing the good works they are doing. Their suffering is not a result of their flaws of faithlessness. Why then do they suffer?
Exhortation and warning (2:10). Before revealing the reason for their suffering, Christ warns them that they “are about to suffer (more)”. Things will not get more comfortable – it will get worse. This is never good news! But being forewarned is being forearmed – they can strengthen their hearts for what lies ahead.
Christ continues: “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days, you will have tribulation.” They are looking towards a season of heightened persecution that involves imprisonment. (In the Roman world, life in prison was harsh, including torture, withholding basic needs like food and bedding – friends and family on the outside had to take care of the inmates).
But Christ’s good news is that this season will be relatively short. “Ten more days” of hardship is not to be read literally in this apocalyptic genre; instead, it speaks of a full measure. Measuring what? Their devotion to Christ, the authenticity of their faith. Like Peter, Jesus tells them that this season of “testing”, this fiery trial they are about to enter, is to prove “the genuineness of (their) faith.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Christ says the Devil will throw them into prison – but we know that Roman soldiers will execute that command. The suffering does the testing of the faith – will they remain faithful to Christ during this season? This reminds us of the drama in the life of Job (chapter 1) – the devoted worshiper whom God boasted about, and whom Satan accused of not being sincere in heart. The Father smiled and said, “Test him”, and the Devil had the power to take all he had, even laid severe sickness upon him. But poor, worn-out Job refused to turn his back on God even though he could not understand why God allowed this. In the end, Job’s faith was honoured by God and his faithfulness rewarded (chapter 42).
Christ’s exhortation to the church in Smyrna agrees with this similar kind of testing of Job, in that as his suffering by the hand of the devil proved his devotion to God, likewise the devil was granted permission to test some in the church in Smyrna for a short season to prove the veracity of their faith.
Christ promises a reward to those who remain faithful until the end: “the crown of life.” The Olympian golden wreath, “The Crown of Life”, was given to the victors in these Greek Games as a prestigious honour. This was the ultimate award to victors, and Christ, the True Emperor, promises to bestow this spiritual reward on those who remain faithful until the end.
Promise (2:11). The letter ends with a promise – not just to Smyrna but “to all who hear”, wherever this letter was circulated: “The one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” Even though you might die and be hurt during this season of severe persecution, you will not suffer a second death – you will be spared from the Great Judgment.
But this promise is “to those who overcome” – overcome what? Overcome the fear of death, the fear of suffering, the love for this life. They are charged to endure and overcome the Devil and his Beast Rome, his Prostitute Babylon, and his False Prophet (the many pagan religions). Overcome the intimidation of the most terrifying threat the Beast of Rome could bring: death. Overcome the lure of a comfortable life of pleasure like all those who bow to the Devil in Babylonian-style living. Overcome the deception of the False Prophet and his false religions that says there are other ways to pure goodness and peace.
And we read how some have overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” And by how their pastor Polycarp died, we can see that this church took the warning and exhortation to heart.
Bringing it home.
Like the pagan world from which John wrote Revelation, much of Western Christendom today believes that prosperity is a sign of God’s approval of us. Therefore suffering must be a sign of God’s displeasure – his blessing having been removed from us. The letter to Smyrna brings Job’s life lesson to us: that hardship is a test of our faithfulness to Christ (do I only worship Him when all goes well?), and that he rewards loyalty to the end with the Crown of Life.
Secondly, we read that suffering will come, and we need to ready our hearts by knowing it is but for a brief moment, and our faithfulness is seen and will be rewarded by Christ.
I pray that this message will help to give you perspective on your own seasons of hardship and will strengthen your heart – as it was meant to do for the church in Smyrna.
Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts
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