Summary: Jesus' encouraging words to suffering Christians
Wow! How do you do that? How do you hold onto hope when something like that happens…something that causes your world to crash in around you? I suspect everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike has been faced with that question. You just heard Angie’s story— how her world came crashing in around her after walking into a room where she was supposed to be met with joy and filled with excitement. The news that her baby would not live was devastating, but when the doctor asks her, “Sweetheart, what are you thinking?” All she could say was, “My Jesus is the same as He was before I walked into this room.” Wow. Granted, that’s not what she felt…but it was what she knew in her heart. It’s what she knew to be true.
Angie’s story is unique to Angie, but everybody has a story and everyone’s story, at some point finds them in the midst of suffering and asking questions like; Why? Why me? What have I done wrong? Where are You, God? Have You forgotten me? We heard the Psalmist asking those same kinds of questions in Psalm 13; “Have you forgotten about me, God?”
When troubles and trials and tragedies…any sort of suffering threatens to crush us, as Christians, we tend to wonder, “What did I do wrong?” Aren’t You supposed to protect me, God?” “Are You mad at me or have You just forgotten about me?” Those are the kinds of things that must have been running through the minds of the Christians in Smyrna because they were suffering terribly. Just about everything bad that could happen to them was happening to them.
Smyrna was located in what is modern day Turkey, just thirty-five miles up the coast from Ephesus. It was a wealthy city, second only to Ephesus. But by the time the Book of Revelation was written, emperor worship was compulsory and so it was not an easy place to be a Christian…not an easy place to be a church. This little community of Believers paid a high price for their faith; many lost their jobs, some lost their businesses, some were arrested, their property confiscated, and many were harassed. And there didn’t seem to be any let-up. As a result, the Christians were destitute and desperate. They knew all about suffering and loss, about grief and troubles, and they had to have wondered if maybe God had forgotten about them too. It was to this persecuted church that this letter was sent. But like Angie’s story of tenacious hope, the Christians in Smyrna must have held on to their faith and held on to Jesus because only two of the seven churches received letters of total commendation and encouragement: Smyrna is one and Philadelphia is the other. And like Angie, they discovered that the Jesus that they fell in love with, the one Who loved them and endured the cross to save them was the same Jesus in the midst of their persecution and suffering. So, they cried out to Jesus, and this letter is His response.
And it’s no ordinary response…no ordinary letter. The letter opens with Jesus saying, “This message is from the One who is the First and the Last…you know, the One who was dead but is now alive!” This phrase, when read by Hebrew Christians, would have immediately triggered memories of the Old Testament scriptures. Deep within the prophecies of Isaiah, the Bible declares, “This is what the LORD says—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies: I am the First and the Last; there is no other God” (Isaiah 44:6) By quoting this sacred scripture and declaring that He is the First and the Last, Jesus was sending a powerful and provocative message. He was saying with unwavering resolve, “Listen. I am God, not Caesar, not Satan, not those who persecute you! Only I am the Almighty, the King and Redeemer! Only I am the Lord of Heaven’s Armies! I am the beginning and the end and I have the last word; No one else. So don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. You know, that’s one of Jesus’ favorite and most used commands. He repeats it no less than twenty times in dozens of situations all throughout the New Testament. Don’t be afraid! And in this letter, Jesus reassures the church in Smyrna that he knows all about what they’re going through. He says He knows all about suffering, knows all about their suffering. He can relate. But more than that, He makes sure they know that He is in control; the One whom suffering and even death could not defeat. Yes, some of them would be thrown into prison. Yes, some of them would even be thrown to the lions. But, He’s telling them that that’s not where their story ends…that in the end, they would no longer be the victims. They would be the victors. They would come through and they would overcome.