Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 5

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Smyrna (2:8-11)


Smyrna was a large city with a passionate loyalty to Rome. There were temples erected to the goddess of Rome and to many Roman leaders. Christians in Smyrna were surrounded by this pagan environment and challenged to live in allegiance to the crucified and risen One. This is both a joy and a task. We may find ourselves in quite similar situations, needing insightful guidance and true wisdom in following in the footsteps of Christ.


(8) “These are the words” is an affirmation of the prophetic character of what is to follow. The identification of the speaker as the First and the Last, the One who died and has come to life, refers back to 1:17-18. There is again in this letter the explicit relationship of the risen Christ to the church. To those facing persecution, even death, he is the victor and is in their midst.

(9) Christ knows their difficulties. He is aware of their poverty, which may have been brought about by the confiscation of their goods and property. Even in the midst of these problems he says, “You are rich.” This is likely to be a reference to their spiritual richness. We can contrast this with the letter to Laodicea (3:17-18):

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; white clothes to wear, so you can cover your nakedness

This is such a good lesson for us to hear. Similar to the Laodiceans, we often equate material possessions with riches. It would seem, on the contrary, that true riches are spiritual. In 3:18 one is counseled to buy from Christ gold refined in the fire, the true way to become rich. Purity comes from Christ alone.

The thought here stands against much of what we are bombarded with in our own day concerning values and wealth. We can say there are two senses of being rich and two senses of being poor. In each case both are dependent on one’s relationship to Christ. Consider and ponder these important words for yourself and the church today!

The next part of the verse shows that the Jews themselves were likely to have been involved in the persecution of Christians at Smyrna. In this case the persecutors may have been Jews according to the flesh, since in the New Testament a true Jew is one who is in Christ (Rom. 2:28-29).

These persecutors of the Smyrnian Christians were not really Jews in this sense. They had in fact degenerated into becoming Satan’s advocates (see John 8:42-47). The ‘synagogue of Satan’ may refer to a specific Jewish synagogue in the city where there was a particular anti-Christian attitude resulting in persecution of the Christian community.

(10) It is worth noting again the motif running through the book that things may get even worse, but believers are not to fear. Even though persecution takes place through the Jews, Roman authorities, or others, it is ultimately the devil that is at the root of the problem. This motif comes to its summit in 17:1-18:24 where we find the judgement on Babylon. Deception and evil continue until the ultimate defeat of the devil himself in 20:1-15.

It is important to remember in the Apocalypse and in some sense throughout Scripture that there is this conflict between sovereignties, which in this book is clearly resolved with God as victor (also Eph. 6:10-18). Some of the believers will therefore suffer and be put into prison for an indefinite period of time. The devil will put them to the test. For some this may ultimately result in death for their faith and believers are called to be faithful even in the midst of horrendous circumstances. They are encouraged not to give up. The Lamb is, and will be, victorious.

This is another vital lesson for us. In the midst of trials and tribulations one is to hold on to life, not death. I would suggest that there may be some confusion for us here as many of us may be in the habit of embracing death rather than life. We are attracted to false apostles, chase after idols, and are enamoured with material possessions. The call is to be faithful. But to what? To God, to Christ and his redeeming work, and to the ultimate difference that work makes to the orientation or goal of one’s life. This should be a powerful reality in our lives. If it is not, we should be asking ourselves some serious questions. Do we really believe, and if so are we choosing and acting in accord with our belief? What a tremendous challenge for the church. Choosing and acting on God’s revelation means far more than just talking about it. Faith is an action and a choice that has an impact on the world for the sake of Christ and his redemption.

Maybe we need to be in the position of suffering persecution for there to be that ‘cutting edge’ necessity of holding firm to the faith. Do we have it too easy? By this I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of our own struggles, but only to say that in whatever the circumstances, we are called to choose life and to act upon it. We must affirm this reality through our choices and actions and work out our salvation for God is at work in us (Phil. 3:12-21).

(11) We again have the formulaic closing of the promise to the one who remains faithful and overcomes. This one will not be hurt by the second death, which in the Apocalypse is seen as final destruction, whereas the first death is merely physical. The relevance of this verse, for both the Christians at Smyrna and for us, is clear.

In some cases there will be periods of trial, even to the extent of death. Death at the hands of others is a travesty, but ultimately irrelevant when compared with the awesome judgement of God. Everyone who overcomes persecution will receive the crown of life, emphatically contrasted here with the destiny of the second death. Both are real prospects; therefore, those who already possess life must take care to hold on to it in all circumstances as they look forward to receiving the crown. In this way the faithful will avoid God’s punishment and therefore live forever in his presence. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”