Monday, October 31, 2011

Smyrna: The Tested Church

This is the second post I'm writing in a series about the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3. Last week we looked at the letter to the church at Ephesus, and today it's on to the church in Smyrna. Here's what Jesus says in Revelation 2:8-11:
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. 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. 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. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
The letter to the church at Smyrna is an interesting one. In most of the letters, there is some kind of warning given in which Jesus tells the church to repent and change in some way. But in two of the letters--Smyrna and Philadelphia--there is no such warning. In this letter, Jesus doesn't say "I know your deeds" and then go on to explain how the church isn't living up to what it should be. Instead, he says, "I know your afflictions."

Smyrna was a church under pressure. They were suffering. They were persecuted. They were afflicted. They were following Christ, and Satan was coming at them because of it. They were slandered by others in the community and even faced the prospect of death because of their faith. And yet, in spite of this, they had continued to hang in there. They endured.

But Jesus knew what they were experiencing. He says, "I know your afflictions." I think there may be a couple different layers to this. Of course Jesus had knowledge that the church at Smyrna was suffering. But he knew their affliction in a deeper way. He knew it because he too had experienced it. He too was slandered and accused and beaten. He was even killed in the most gruesome terms. Jesus hasn't asked his church to go where he hasn't already blazed a trail. He knows the church's suffering because he has suffered and is present with us in our suffering. And that's a comfort truth, I think.

Another comforting truth is that there is something else on the other side of suffering. The church's afflictions aren't the end of the story. The beginning of this letter identifies Jesus as the one who had died and come back to life. The cross wasn't the end of Jesus' story because he bust out of the tomb three days later. And suffering isn't the church's end because there is a crown of life waiting on the other side. In verse 10, Jesus said that the Smyrnans (?) would suffer for ten days. This is a symbolic number drawn from Daniel 1, where Daniel and his three friends, while captive in Babylon, are tested for ten days of eating only vegetables. The meaning? Ten stands for a period of testing that has a limit. The testing doesn't go on forever. And just as Daniel went through ten days of testing to come out successfully on the other side, the church at Smyrna would go through persecution for a time to burst out in glory on the other side.

It's really difficult for me to draw very good applications from this passage for the contemporary American church. The church at Smyrna experienced some serious persecution and suffering for their faith. Their lives were literally at stake. It seems a little presumptuous for me to compare my own conditions to theirs. American churches are facing the same situations that they were.

But nevertheless, even American believers do suffer. It might look different than it did two thousand years ago. But being a follower of Jesus always comes with a cost. It might be vocational, relational, or financial. A person's reputation might be spoiled because of a decision for Christ. It might mean leaving behind a life of comfort and ease for something less cozy. When we face these kinds of circumstances, what comfort can we draw from the letter to Smyrna?

Jesus knows our affliction. He's right there with us. And he's been there before. He can guide us through it because he knows the way. He can strengthen us with the same power that brought him back from the dead (Eph. 1:18-20). We can get through the crap of life because God gives us a vision of what's waiting for us.

And everyone looks better in a crown.

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