Read Revelation 2:8-11
One day, during the hot summer of 2014, I sat in a dark room in East Asia in an undisclosed location. I was unprepared. A few days before, I was assigned to instruct a preaching course. I was meeting in an abandoned gymnasium with East Asian pastors who were desperate and hungry for God’s Word. Little did I know what was going to happen 72 hours later.
Like all the other classes I have trained in the past, an appreciative dinner party was set on the last day. I was excitedly awaiting a big meal. Yet, the last day of teaching felt different. In the middle of my teaching session I received an encoded text message from the leader’s son that his father was taken by police officials. The official house church leader of this city was arrested and interrogated. This was the last hour of my last session. However, instead of finishing the last hour, many of my students (respected pastors in the area) began to leave the premise. They did not want to be interrogated either. Immediately, my translator and I were forcibly moved towards a gray vehicle with dark tinted windows. Both of us were shaking in deep fear. My translator quickly said, “We need to pray.”
The passage begins with addressing the church of Smyrna. Smyrna began as a Greek colony. Then it was invaded and destroyed, but rebuilt four hundred years later as a beautiful city. Historically it was a place that experienced destruction and fullness of life. But during the rule of Rome, Smyrna became a center of paganism. It became a place of worship to the goddess Roma and Rome’s human emperors. Christians were challenged to be steadfast in their faith.
John reminds the believers of Smyrna to find their identity in Christ. Christ also had endured death and come back to life. “[He is] the first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life.” (v.8) John, the author of Revelation, wrote this earlier from Jesus. (See Rev. 1:17-18) Later on, these attributes are echoed again (See Rev. 21:6; 22:13). The significance is not that Christ is only eternal, but that He also triumphed over death. To the reader, there should be no doubt to the fullness of His glory — in His humanity and in His deity. The work of Christ, not Smyrna, should define the life of the believer.
Jesus affirms this. “I know your tribulation and your poverty, (but you are rich)” (v. 9). He knows their tribulation, (qlipsis in Greek) which is a literal crushing of weight and poverty, the state in which one has nothing at all. Furthermore, He calls them spiritually wealthy, rich in the grace of Christ unlike the religious Jews who were outwardly pious, but inwardly controlled by Satan (See Rom. 2:28-29).
Therefore, the believers of Smyrna will be tested. First, He commands them to not be afraid for there will be a time of suffering (v.10a). Satan, who was active with the blasphemous Jews, will also be active against the believers of Smyrna. Christians are cast into prison to be tested for ten days. The clarity of how, when and where this will happen is unknown. However, what we know is that there will be a suffering that is brief.
This leads to Paul’s second imperative, be faithful until death. Remember, Jesus earlier was described as one who tasted death and resurrected. The same is expected of the Christian. If you remain faithful, you too will experience life. Jesus takes it a step further, “I [you] will be given the crown of life” (v.10b). This is affirmed by verse 11 that those who listen will not be hurt by the second death.
After driving through corridors, side streets and alleyways, we ended up in a rural area filled with metal shack housing. My translator and I walked into a little home and sat on a few chairs and hunkered down as we awaited the news of the head house church pastor’s interrogation. We were immersed in sweat and fear. The slightest sound caused us to twitch nervously.
Yet, all those who prayed around us asked the Lord to give us comfort in times of persecution, joy in times of trouble. I was hugged by the strangers around me and even fed. They reiterated the phrase, “Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, etc.” repeatedly. Why? For one, they have accepted the reality of suffering. Persecution was new to me. I feared the worst, but the believers and pastors knew the Lord would deliver. They knew to suffer with Jesus was better than to live in comfort without Him. Second, they accepted the reality of faith. Faith and fear do not go together, however, faith and suffering do. To wed the two, is to truly know Jesus. This is the battle cry of Jesus to the believers of Smyrna: suffer well and be faithful. Go and do likewise!
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