Sunday, June 30, 2019

Reasoning Through Revelation. Day 10, The Lord's Words To The Church At Smyrna/The Second Church Age

The Lord addresses Himself in our study today to the church located in Smyrna. Smyrna is the only church mentioned in Revelation for whom the Lord has no words of criticism. We will talk about why this is, and we will take a look at why Smyrna represents the second church age.

Smyrna is known as the "martyr church". Not only did the literal church at Smyrna endure a great deal of persecution, but Christians of the church age it represents (from about 100 AD to 312 AD) experienced so much persecution from the Roman government that some sources estimate as many as five million Christians were killed for their faith. It was during this age that it became a common practice for Romans to throw Christians to the lions in the public arenas for sport. Emperor worship was at its most prevalent during this time, and everyone living within the Roman Empire was expected to offer incense to the emperor and declare "Caesar is Lord"---a thing the Christians refused to do. Because they would not do this, they were considered blasphemers for calling Jesus Christ "Lord", and in many cases they were considered enemies of the government. It was during this age that one particular Roman emperor, Diocletian, tried to eradicate the written gospel from the earth. He wanted both the written name and the spoken name of Christ permanently banned. Because of this, the Christians of the large and prosperous city of Smyrna were shunned by almost everyone but their fellow Christians, which effectively served to prevent them from making a living at their occupations. In many cases their rights and their properties were taken from them. The Christians of Smyrna were often homeless, living on the streets and living on whatever scraps they could scrounge or on whatever few coins those who felt pity for them might throw to them.

The Christians of Smyrna and the Christians of the second and third centuries BC endured a great deal for the name of Christ, yet they refused to deny His name in spite of their suffering. This is why He has no words of criticism for them. He begins His message to the Christians of Smyrna like this: "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." (Revelation 2:8) As we studied yesterday, the word translated "angel" in English is the Greek word "aggeloj" which means "messenger". It is generally accepted by many reputable scholars that the letters in Revelation are addressed to the pastors of the churches.

Just as He did yesterday when He spoke to the Christians of Ephesus, Christ picks out a particular aspect of Himself to emphasize. In this case, He reminds the church at Smyrna that He is the "First and Last, who died and came to life again". It may appear to the Christians of Smyrna that they are about to be wiped from the earth. They may have doubts whether Christianity itself will survive the age they are living in. So the Lord reminds them of another day when things seemed hopeless to those who believed in Him. He is the One who once lay still and dead in a dark tomb, and yet rose from the dead and is alive forevermore. What looked like the end was only the beginning.

Jesus Christ lets the Christians of Smyrna know that their troubles have not gone unnoticed by Him. "I know your afflictions and your poverty---yet you are rich!" (Revelation 2:9a) Notice that He doesn't promise to remove their afflictions and their poverty from them. But isn't it human nature for us to feel somewhat better just because someone acknowledges what we're going through? If the believers of Smyrna ever doubted that the Lord really sees what they're enduring for His name, He puts those doubts to rest. He knows what they've suffered by following Him. And though they are poor by the world's standards, they are rich by God's standards, for, "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Mark 8:36) The Christians of Smyrna have gained eternal life, and if in doing so they have had to forfeit "the whole world", they are winners in the eyes of God. When compared to eternity, life is short. The things of this world are temporary. The church members of Smyrna have lost a great deal of temporary things by proclaiming the name of Christ, but they have stored up for themselves treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-21) They have an inheritance awaiting them that can never be taken away from them.

It's bad enough that he believers of Smyrna have been robbed of their livelihoods and possessions, but they've also had their good reputations slandered by a group whom Jesus declares were not who they claim to be. "I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." (Revelation 2:9b) We don't know specifically who these people were or what exactly they were doing to the Christians of Smyrna, but they added their persecution to the persecution that the Gentiles were heaping on the Christians. Jesus is not saying something anti-Semitic here; after all, He was a Jew. He's talking about people who claim to be something they are not. There have always been people who claim to belong to the Lord when in truth they are doing the deeds of the devil. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:36-40) He said that everything in the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. So anyone who claims to be either a Jew or a Christian, and yet does not love God and their fellow man, is a liar and a hypocrite.

Jesus doesn't promise that things are going to get better for the Christians in Smyrna. Instead He encourages them to stand strong. "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 life as your victor's crown." (Revelation 2:10) The "ten days" He refers to are obviously not ten literal days. We know that their suffering continued on into the third century AD. It has been proposed by a number of scholars over the centuries that these "ten days" may symbolize the reigns of ten especially wicked Roman emperors of the first three centuries AD. Included in this list would be Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Severus, Maximinius, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian. If this is the meaning of the "ten days" then it's clear why Jesus would use symbolic language rather than having John write down the names of the emperors who have already reigned, or the one who is currently reigning, or those who haven't yet come on the scene. It would not be good for a Christian to be caught with a letter that speaks of the wickedness of any Roman emperor of the past, the present, or the future.

In ancient Rome it was common to give a crown of laurel leaves to the victors of athletic competitions. These crowns would dry up within a matter of days and would eventually crumble to dust. But the Lord has an everlasting victor's crown in store for everyone who has endured the trials of this world and who has not denied His name. The Apostle Paul, writing to Christian Gentiles who were familiar with the athletic competitions of the Roman and Greek world, urged his readers to run the race to win it. He compared Christian training to the training the athletes undertake, and he reminded his readers that they were running to win an eternal crown, not a temporary crown. "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." (1 Corinthians 9:25)

The Lord Jesus completes His message in today's passage with these words: "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death." (Revelation 2:11) This concluding remark is meant for us all. We are to listen to the Spirit with our "spiritual ears". We are to keep in mind that the hardships of this world are temporary. Even if we should die for our faith, our persecutors can only kill us once. They can only kill our bodies, and even the death of our bodies won't be permanent, for someday we will rise in bodies just like Christ's, never to die again. But those who deny the name of Christ should fear not only physical death, but also what He calls "the second death". The second death will occur when they stand before the great Judge and are found guilty and are sentenced to an eternity far from the light of His presence. This is a fate far worse than the death of the body.

If you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, you can only die once. As He Himself said, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28) If we fear the Lord (if we have a holy and reverent and worshipful respect of Him) we don't have to fear anyone or anything else.

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