Are you rich? One of the ways that we lose our fire for the Lord is in our failure to see how rich we are. This is the focus that the Christians in the city of Smyrna are to have concerning the suffering they are about to experience.
The city of Smyrna had imperial cult temples to Emperor Tiberius and later to Emperor Hadrian. The cities in the province of Asia competed for the privilege to have this temple to Tiberius established and Smyrna won the competition (similar to how cities compete for the right to host the Olympic Games). Smyrna claimed to be the first in the province in Asia in beauty and emperor loyalty. The city was also the first in Asia to build a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC). Smyrna is a city that is very loyal to Rome and the emperors. Each year the citizens had to offer sacrifices to Caesar. This would be a problem for Christians who would not be willing to offer sacrifices in honor of the emperor, as many emperors demanded worship. Emperor Domitian is one such emperor who demanded that he be worshiped and Smyrna would certainly have been a city to enforce such worship. We also read in the book of Acts that the Jews were creating a persecution against Christians. Paul himself, before he became a Christian, was one of the lead persecutors of Christians. The book of Acts reveals the Jews using the Roman authorities to bring about imprisonment, suffering, and sometimes even the death of those who believed Jesus to be the Messiah. It is a world we do not understand but a world that many Christians experience outside of the United States. These are the factors that we need to have in mind as we approach Jesus’ letter to the church in the city of Smyrna.
Jesus’ Self-Description (2:8)
How Jesus describes himself indicates the kind of message he is going to give to the church in Smyrna. These are the words of the one who has died and has come back to life. Keep that description in mind as we read about what is going to happen to these Christians.
I Know (2:9)
Jesus says that he knows the tribulation and persecution the Christians are suffering. He knows that they are currently enduring suffering where they live. It is likely that the strong Roman loyalty and spirit in this city caused conflicts and suffering for the Christians who live there. Further, Jesus knows their poverty. The Greek word for poverty indicates they are not simply poor, but they have real deprivation. It is not that they are living poor because they are not being paid well or do not have a job. It is a word that means they had nothing. However, Smyrna was a wealthy city. Therefore, the reason these Christians are in poverty is implied. They have lost their wealth and possessions for Christ. They are suffering economically because they will not show their loyalty to the emperor or to Rome. Economic pressure was an easy way to begin harming Christians in the first century.
I wonder if we would have the same patient endurance that these Christians displayed if we suffered economic loss because we were Christians. I wonder this because many lose their faith in Jesus when they suffer economic loss and the loss is not for the cause of Christ. The loss is simply a matter of the economy, a lost job, or poor decision making. Would we be Christians if wearing the name of Jesus meant you would lose your house, your car, and your possessions? Would we be loyal to Jesus even in the face of economic loss? Are our hearts so in love with God that someone could take everything else away and we would still love and serve God? Or are our hearts so in love with this world that if someone were to take away everything, we would be crushed, despondent, and forfeit our faith?
I asked you earlier in the lesson if you thought you were rich. The Christians in Smyrna were in poverty. They had their goods and possessions taken away. Jesus even declares that they truly are in poverty. But Jesus tells that they they actually are rich. How could they be rich? They are rich because they have what really matters.
One of the ways that we can ignite our passion and love for God is by recognizing that we are rich. We may or may not be rich with wealth and physical possessions. But whatever economic condition we are in is irrelevant. Too often we use our lack as some sort of excuse as to why we cannot serve God. These Christians in Smyrna had true poverty. Their wealth and possessions have been taken from them. But Jesus still knew their works. In fact, this is one of only two churches that Jesus does not issue a condemnation. Lacking possessions is not an excuse for why we choose not to worship, serve, or obey God.
By recognizing that we are rich with God allows us to be satisfied with where we are. We are able to be content when we stop looking at all the physical things we do not have and see all the spiritual things we do have. We are to place our treasure in heaven, making investments in our eternal outcome. Loving the things of this world quenches our love for Jesus. I don’t know that we grasp this truth. We think that we can love both. Look at the words of Jesus concerning this.
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24 ESV) Listen to what Jesus said. You will love one and hate the other. You cannot love both of them. You will be devoted to one and despise the other. This is why Jesus’ teaching ends, “You cannot serve God and money.” You only can love one, not both. See all that you have with God and love God. Stop looking at all you do not have in wealth and stop loving wealth.
Staying On Fire Through Suffering (2:8-10)
The rest of verse 8 describes the current suffering of these Christians. These Christians are being slander by the Jews. Most likely, the Jews are going to the Roman authorities and slandering their activities to bring greater suffering and persecution against the Christians. Jesus says he sees what these Jews are doing. Jesus says that they say they are Jews but they really are not. In Romans 2:28-29 Paul described that those who were true Jews. “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit and not the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29; ESV). These people in Smyrna claim to be the people of God, but they are not, as revealed by their actions.
I am going to say something that apparently needs to be said because of the correspondence I receive by email. There are many who claim to be God’s people but are not. People are going to claim to be followers of Jesus but are not. Recognize that our suffering can come from the hands who we would think to be on our side. Jesus’ words are very harsh for these pretenders. Not only are they not Jews, they actually are a synagogue of Satan. They claim to be followers of God, but they are an assembly of Satan. See them for who they really are because Jesus sees them for who they really are.
In verse 10 Jesus tells his people to get ready. They are already suffering, but there is more suffering coming. How would you like to hear these words? You are suffering for Christ and it is only going to get worse. The devil is about to throw some of them into prison. Not only this, they are going to experience tribulation for 10 days. We must remember that the numbers and images we read in the book of Revelation are symbols unless the text demands otherwise. Nothing in this text demands otherwise. Therefore, Jesus is not saying that their suffering is only for 10 actual days. Rather, their suffering will be for a short, limited duration of time. Do not fear what you are about to suffer but things are going to get more difficult for the Christians. Please notice who is behind this suffering. Notice that the cause of the suffering is the devil, not God. I have pointed out many times that God receives too much blame and the devil does not get enough blame for our suffering. The devil is causing the suffering right now. This is a picture that will crystalize for us in chapter 12. The devil is the source of our suffering. Remain faithful to God. What sense does it make to give up on God and turn to the devil when he is the one who is bringing you the pain?
The suffering that is coming is going to be severe. Jesus says to be faithful unto death. This tribulation will not only result in some being imprisoned, but also the death of some. This is why Jesus began this letter with the description of himself as the one “who died and came back to life.” These Christians must remain faithful, even to the point of death. Jesus died and came back to life. You may die but God will raise you from the dead if you remain faithful. If we remain faithful, we will be given the victorious crown of life.
Will we only serve God when it is easy? Will we serve God on all occasions and circumstances? This is a critical concept for the life of the Christian. Christ is calling on his followers to serve even though suffering. If your definition of God’s mercy and divine power is that he will not let you suffer, then you do not know the God of the Bible. God does not devote his energy and power to keep you from suffering, contrary to popular religious teaching today. God devotes his energy, divine power, and grace to save you from the second death. We must see that this is the point to the Christians. God will not save you from physical suffering or death. That is not God’s purpose. God will deliver you from the second death if we are faithful to him. Not being hurt by the second death is the most important thing.
Ignite your love for God by realizing that your suffering is only temporary. While we live on this earth the devil will send us wave after wave of pain and suffering. God has never promised to keep life easy. God devotes himself to saving your from the second death, the eternal separation from God where there is eternal pain and misery. That is God’s focus and this must be our focus.