THE POSTMAN TRAVELS TO SMYRNA
This is the second in a seven part series in which we will look at Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor that are found in Revelation 2-3. Remember that last week we said that Revelation is an apocalypse which is a revealing where Jesus pulls back the curtain to show what is behind. It is also a prophecy and the purpose of prophecy is to call the people back to faithfulness. Revelation is not a crystal ball. Its primary purpose is to tell the church how to overcome and be faithful in times of hardship.
Last week, the postman delivered a letter from Jesus to the church in Ephesus. It was about love, first love, intoxication, enlivening, mystifying love, the kind of love that Jesus wants the church in Ephesus to have for him. That kind of love is one of the marks of a true church. Today we turn to Jesus’ letter to Smyrna. Let’s listen to his message and discern what it says to us. Those who have ears, let them hear.
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. (v. 8)
Each of these letters begins by telling us something about the author, Jesus. He identifies himself not by his name but by who he is and what he does. He says that he is the First and the Last. This phrase sounds familiar to most Christians but few of us know where it really came from or the incredible depths of its meaning.
In this phrase, Jesus quotes directly from Isaiah 44:6 which says, “I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God.” In this verse from Isaiah, we discover something interesting about the first and the last: that apart from it, there is no God. What this does is declare very clearly that the first and the last are, in fact, God. God is the first and God is the last.
Hold onto that thought as we look back to Revelation 2:8 where Jesus says, “I am the First and the Last.” Jesus takes that Old Testament verse which refers to God as the first and the last and uses it to refer to himself. There are those who doubt the divinity of Jesus, who say that he was just a great man, a healer, teacher and a prophet. But this verse says something else. It is a clear indication of the divinity of Jesus. “I am the First and the Last,” he said. “I am God. Listen to what I have to say to you.”
This is very important for the people of Smyrna to hear. The Christians are being persecuted. Why? Because they refuse to bow the knee to Caesar and worship him as a god. For that they are suffering. In re-affirming his divinity, Jesus tells the people of Smyrna that they were doing the right thing. There was only one person worthy of worship and that is Jesus because he is the First and the Last.
The next phrase tells us something else about Jesus. He says, “I am the one who died and came to life again.” To die and rise again means that Jesus is not just the First and the Last. In order to die, Jesus had to be something other than divine because God cannot die. God is eternal. For Jesus to die, he also had to be human. Jesus then is both divine and human. This is his dual nature. He is 100% divine because he is the first and the last but he is also 100% human because he died and came to life again. So you see, things are not as they seem. There is more here than meets the eye.
POVERTY AMIDST THE WEALTH
I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (v. 9)
This is where Jesus offers them a commendation. He says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty.” Smyrna is an extremely prosperous city. It has an excellent port and road system into the interior, making it a commercial hub of the region. So, why, in the midst of such prosperity, are there could be people who live in poverty. We could ask ourselves the same question today. Why, in a country as rich as Canada do we still have homeless people and foodbanks? Good question that the church needs to address if it is to faithful.
But what about the people in Smyrna. Why are they poor? The reason why they are poor is because they refuse to worship the emperor. Because of this they are ostracized and boycotted by the rest of the city. People will not sell them what they need. People will not purchase their goods and services. These are the consequences of not bowing the knee to Caesar. There is a cost to following Jesus and they are paying it with interest.
But wait. All is not bad news because as is often the case in Revelation, things are not as they seem. Jesus says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!” They may not have the material wealth that is enjoyed by their neighbours but they have something far more valuable. They have Jesus and their faith in him will see them through. He is the First and the Last, he died and came to life again and he is with them.
Jesus then points to a particular group that is especially to blame for the suffering of the Christians. He says, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Let’s be clear about something. Jesus is not talking about all Jews. He is not even talking about all of the Jews in Smyrna. He is talking about a specific group of Jews in Smyrna who are being rather troublesome.
What they are doing is turning in Christians who refused to worship Caesar. There’s a reason for this. Of all of the people in the Roman Empire, the Jews alone are given an exemption from bowing the knee to Caesar. This is unique to them. And they do not want to lose that exemption, which could easily be taken away by the Senate.
The problem is that the Roman authorities do not always find it easy to differentiate between Jews and Christians. These particular Jews in Smyrna are aiding the authorities. They are pointing out which people are Jews and which are Christians so that the authorities can persecute the Christians. That means that, in Smyrna, the lion’s share of the persecution and poverty is caused by a few informants. No wonder Jesus refers to them as the synagogue of Satan.
THE REALITY OF SUFFERING
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. (v. 10a)
Jesus begins v. 10 by telling them Christians not to be afraid of what they are about to suffer. There are a couple of things that need to be said about this sentence. The first is that suffering is inevitable. Note that Jesus does not say that he will relieve their suffering. Instead, he affirms that they are going to suffer.
Here is one of the most difficult concepts to understand in the entire Bible. Why is it that anyone must suffer? If God really loves us, would he not just snap his fingers and make all of the world’s suffering vanish? Don’t we hear that even today? If God really cares about us, then God would not have allowed Covid-19 to endanger so many lives. That would be a wonderful thought except that God gave us this other gift called free will. And I will argue that it is free will that causes the vast majority of this world’s suffering. Suffering is almost always the product of human decisions, human failings and human sin. The only way to the eliminate suffering in this world is to take away free will and, when we think about it, none of us really wants that to happen either.
That means that suffering is inevitable. It cannot be avoided But here’s something else to think about. While suffering may inevitable, misery is not because misery is an attitude. Like the Christians in Smyrna, you will not avoid suffering. That is a given. Your choice, even today, is not about whether to suffer. It is how to respond to suffering. Look at those early Christians. They faced untold persecution, hardships and suffering yet they chose to live in victory through faith in Christ.
Why do the Christians in Smyrna have to suffer? There are two reasons for that. The first one is visible and the second one is invisible. The visible reason one goes back to the whole emperor worship thing. The Christians in Smyrna suffer because they refuse to compromise. They refuse to take part in the prevailing attitudes of their day because they know that there is only one person worthy of worship and that is Jesus.
It would be easy to end the suffering. All they have to do is compromise. Their suffering would end in a moment. All they have to do is bow the knee to Caesar. The Romans would say, “Good for you. You’ve finally come around. Now we will trade with you and you can share in our incredible wealth.” But they won’t do it. It is because they refuse to compromise that they suffer.
The visible suffering of the Christians in Smyrna is due to the persecution that they are suffering at the hands of the community. The other reason for their suffering is invisible. Jesus points to it when he says, “… The Devil will put some of you in prison…”
There are people in this world today who don’t believe that there is a being named in the Devil or Satan, that he is only a metaphor. But let me tell you that this would be a surprise to Jesus. He knows that the Devil exists. Remember that he spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan before he began his earthly ministry. Don’t tell Jesus that the Devil isn’t real. He’ll tell you something different.
Satan has a purpose. More than anything else in all creation, Satan wants to defeat Jesus. But he can’t because Jesus, in his death and resurrection, already defeated the forces of darkness. They can no longer touch him. And, since the Devil cannot get to Jesus, he goes after that which is most precious to Jesus. Satan goes after the Church.
Believe it or not, you are of absolutely no interest to Satan. He doesn’t care about you, your life or your soul. The only reason he pays any attention to you at all is because, through you, he thinks he can hurt Jesus. The more you compromise, the more you turn from Jesus, the happier is the Devil.
That means that behind the visible persecution of the social and political structures that threaten the Church, there is also the spiritual opposition which springs from the forces of darkness that work in opposition to the Gospel. Once again, things are not as they seem. There is more here than meets the eye.
But then there is good news of a sort. Suffering and persecution will not last forever. Jesus puts a cap on it. “You will suffer persecution for ten days,” he says. Ten days might seem like a long time, especially when suffering, but the good news is that it is not forever. Suffering will end and you will receive your reward if you overcome.
A FINAL PROMISE
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (v. 10b-11)
Jesus ends this letter, as he does every one, with a promise. He tells the Church at Smyrna that, if they remain faithful, he will give them the crown of life. He also tells them that those who overcame will not be hurt by the second death.
What’s that all about? The crown of life is, of course, the eternal life that we have through faith in Jesus Christ. The second death refers to the end times when all people will be resurrected. It is at that time that we will stand before the judgment seat of God and the books will be open. The Bible says that those who have compromised and have not followed Christ will be thrown into the lake of fire where they will experience the second death which is described in Revelation 20:14-15.
Those who have overcome, however, who have not compromised and have remained faithful, will be judged worthy and will escape the second death. They have been washed in the blood of the lamb and they will live forever in God’s kingdom. What a glorious victory.
One last point. Did you notice that there is something missing in this letter? Unlike the other six letters, there is no condemnation here. Jesus has no need to be critical of the Christians in Smyrna because they have not done anything wrong. They have been consistent. Despite all of their suffering, they have remained faithful. More than any of the other six churches, this is the one that suffered the most. Did they overcome? Yes, they did. Ironically, of all of the seven churches in Asia Minor this is the only one that still exists today. Since it was founded in the first century there has always been a Christian church in Smyrna. Smyrna is now called Izmir and it is still a vibrant centre of Eastern Orthodox Christian worship and education. Seldom in the last nineteen centuries has it been without suffering. And never has its vitality diminished.
What about us? How will we respond to the pressures of this world? Will we compromise? Will we bow down to the social and political forces that demand our worship? Or will we stand faithful and overcome as did the Christians in Smyrna. Things are not as they seem. There is more here than meets the eye.
Those who have ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the Churches.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of Grace and Glory, shine upon us with the light of Heaven. Radiate within the deepest recesses of our souls so that we may glow in response to your never ending love and care. How wonderful you are and how good to us. Who are we that you defend us? What have we done to deserve your compassion? Your gifts to us are unearned and undeserved, given freely by your grace. For your many blessings we give you thanks and praise.
We give thanks this day for front line workers, medical staff, EMS, shelf stockers, truck drivers and so many others. Be with them, especially, as we begin to reopen the economy.
In the midst of our praise and thanks, we come with our concerns. We lift up in prayer those affected by the racism that is still too prevalent in our society. We grief senseless death just as we grieve the pain of those injured by violent protest. We ask your justice, O God, because you know the way that we need to go and only you can get us there.
We remember before you those who are suffering from any number of natural disasters that we hear about on the earth. Rains, winds and floods have taken their toll. And yet we still ask for your protection and blessing as we live within the world of your making. Help us to live with respect in creation and to turn towards you in all things.
We pray for those who need healing this day. We also pray for peace for the family and friends of those who grieve in their loss, that you would be their comfort and their strength.
God of all the Ages, we pray with open hearts, knowing that you hear and answer our prayers. We pray in Jesus’ name through whom you gave us the great gift of eternal life. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
May 31, 2020 / Pentecost
Numbers 11: 24 – 30; Psalm 104: 24 – 34, 35b; Acts 2: 1 – 21; John 20: 19 – 23
CALL TO WORSHIP
The earth is full of your majesty, O God.
As long as we have breath we will sing to you.
May our words and rejoicings be pleasing to the Living God;
Praise the Lord forever!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Breathe on us, breath of God, and fill us with life anew. Help us to love what you love and do what you would do. Send the Holy Spirit into our gathering. Anoint us and refresh us. Blow through us and around us. As we worship this day, may we glow with the divine fire of Pentecost. Make us like Jesus who brought your divine healing to a hurting world. Make us like the disciples who shared his salvation with all people. Come, Holy Spirit, come! Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We confess, O God, that the fire of your Spirit does not always glow as brightly within us as it could. We want our comforts instead of your compassion. We seek power over others and neglect your passion for justice. We hold onto our opinions and judgments when you call us to listen for your truth. We remain silent when we are supposed to speak your Word and share your Gospel. Forgive us, O God, and open our hearts, that we may celebrate your Spirit within and among us. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
Like a gentle breeze, God fans the flame of the Spirit within us. Like a strong wind, God reminds us of the need to forgive and be forgiven. Like a mighty storm, God cleans away the past and forces us to look at a new future. Forgiven and renewed, we are free to dance where the Spirit leads us.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING Your Spirit breathed upon the Church at Pentecost giving life and purpose. As you gave your Spirit to us, we surrender our spirits to you. We bring our gifts with the courage and hope that you will bless us with the wisdom to us them for your holy purpose. Amen.
As we go to our daily living, may the Spirit come to us in new and exciting ways. God comes as a gentle whisper, as a strong wind, as a mighty storm. Let us go, filled with the Spirit to share the Good News of salvation with all people.