Summary: Smyrna: Comfort for the Persecuted
The Seven, part 8
Smyrna: Comfort for the Persecuted
July 7, 2013
We have seen that the Revelation was written to address specific issues with seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. We saw in chapter one that John describes a portrait of the Lord of the church to encourage the churches under attack that Christ is coming to vindicate his church and judge his enemies. As we look at these seven churches we see a pattern emerge in each letter – an introduction; an evaluation; an exhortation; and a benediction. Last week we saw that Ephesus was theologically astute but had lost their devotion or passion for Christ. Life and ministry had become mere duty, even religious obligation without a desire for Jesus so his word to them was to renew your devotion to me. Today we look at the letter to the church in Smyrna who was suffering persecution. This letter is different than the letter to Ephesus, there is no rebuke and no call for repentance.
The two most common interpretations for what John means by 'the angel of the church' is that the angel is the pastor of the church or that the angel is the personification of the church. Jesus commands John to write because the bible is the primary way God communicates to his people. These seven letters are prophetic letters. I have said before that in the Old Testament, the prophets spoke the very words of God to the people of God. Their words were accepted as inspired by God so were written down as Old Testament scripture. In the New Testament apostles replaced the Old Testament prophets as those who spoke the very words of God to the people of God. Their words were accepted as inspired by God so were written as New Testament scripture. But there is also prophecy in the New Testament where men and women spoke merely human words to describe something God brought to their mind for the encouragement and edification of the church but because this form of prophecy is fallible we are told to “test everything, hold fast what is good.”
He is writing to the church. I have said much about how the bible understands the corporate nature of the church. The New Testament describes Christians as part of a local church; it knows nothing of Christians who are not part of a local church.
Smyrna is located about thirty five miles north of Ephesus. It was the most sophisticated of the seven with tremendous wealth and beauty. It had two harbors, a library of 200,000 volumes, a stadium, a gymnasium. The streets were paved, the main road going from one end of the city to the other end, connecting two temples. The city was destroyed in 400 BC and rebuilt or raised back to life in about 190 BC. It had a strong alliance with Rome and therefore Emperor worship. It also had a large Jewish population that we will see was antagonistic toward the church.
Jesus describes himself in two ways, as the first and the last and who died and came to life. Every letter gives a description that comes from the vision in chapter one which relates directly to the situation of that particular church. The first and the last is similar to 'the Alpha and Omega ,' meaning I was before all things and after all things; the beginning and the end and everything in between. He died and came to life to demonstrate that in death he defeated death. Death could not contain him; it could not hold him.
'I know' points to the fact that he not only knows but understands like someone who knows something of the pain you are experiencing. The tribulation is described as both poverty and slander. Jesus does not promise to alleviate the suffering but promises to see them through it. This poverty is not just being tight or having a hard time like scraping to get by. It describes abject poverty, beggarly. Every citizen had to demonstrate loyalty to Rome by burning a yearly sacrifice to Caesar and getting a certificate of loyalty. In addition, most individuals were part of trade guilds, much like modern trade unions. Every trade was associated with a god and if a Christian did not demonstrate loyalty to that god they would be expelled from the guild and not able to get work. So Christians were seen as disloyal to both Rome and the trade guilds and as a result they could have their property confiscated, looted by others, and the general public be antagonistic, creating economic hardship. Yet Jesus says they are rich, showing that although they were lacking in the eyes of the culture, in God's eyes, they had everything.