A life of faithfulness to Jesus does not guarantee health or wealth. Jesus calls us to remain faithful regardless of the cost.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that the pressure to conform to worshipping the Roman emperor/empire was significant.
Understand that faithfulness to the way of Jesus is costly.
Be encouraged not to fear when our faith causes us suffering because even if we die, we will not be harmed in the second death.
Catching up on the Story
John’s apocalyptic prophesy began with a vision of the heavenly throne room where Christ was standing in the middle of seven golden lampstands and seven stars. He’s wearing a golden sash, and a sword is coming out of his mouth. Jesus then instructs John to write down all he will see and hear and give it to seven churches.
As we began our study, we said that Revelation is a book of hope, encouragement, and admonishment. It is written to Christians in the first century who are spread across the Roman Empire. The main image in the first vision is that Jesus stands among the churches. He is present with them as they seek to navigate living faithfully in a chaotic, dangerous, and pluralistic world. The seven stars are the angels of the churches, and the lampstands are the churches.
In chapter two, Jesus tells John what to write to each of the seven churches. Before we looked at Jesus’ message to Ephesus, we noted that the letters were addressed to the church’s angel. Rather than being an angelic, heavenly being, the angel is the collected vibe or spirit of the church. Each church, indeed any social gathering, has a spirit about it. You can sometimes feel a place’s spirit when you walk into a gathering. You can feel a church’s loving-kindness or their judgementalism.
The message to the Ephesians commends and chastises the church. The Ephesians started strong, displaying their love for God through loving their neighbor. As the culture around them pressed in, they became worried about succumbing to pressures to conform to pagan practices. To their honor, they kept themselves pure, even testing the teachings of other Christians to see if it was legitimate.
Somewhere along the line, they forgot their primary focus: loving people and loving God. Instead, they became fixated on following the rules. We call this legalism. There is no love in legalism. It creates unnecessary boundaries, boundaries that keep good people out. At the end of the letter, Jesus asks the Ephesians to remember their first love, God, and their neighbor.
The city of Smyrna was the second most important city after Ephasus. Smyrna still exists today as the Turkish city of Izmir. The town is located close to a deep gulf on the Agean sea. The deep gulf made an excellent harbor for maritime vessels, making it an ideal stop along an important trade route. The city’s location also made it a target for groups wanting to control the flow of goods or who wished to levy taxes on those goods. As a result, Smyrna was no stranger to armed conflict and war.
In 580 BCE, Smyrna was destroyed by the king of neighboring Lydia. It remained abandoned until it was rebuilt in 290 BCE. The city was well laid out and became a model city, boasting a famous stadium where competitive games might be played, a good library, and the largest public theater in the region. Because of its reconstruction after such a long time of abandonment, Symnra became known as “The city that Died Yet Lives.” (Daniels, 46-48)
Smyrna allied itself with Rome as it battled supremacy with its neighbors. Because of their faithfulness to Rome and its burgeoning empire, Smyrna was granted the right to build a temple to the goddess Roma. Over a hundred years later, the city was awarded the honor of building a temple in honor of the emperor Tiberius. Winning the honor of building a second temple worshiping Rome and its empire was significant as Smyrna had fierce competition from ten other cities.
Smyrna’s link with Rome and its empire created a culture where honoring Rome were of paramount importance. As was the case across the Roman empire, once a year, citizens were required to burn a pinch of incense in honor of the emperor. Upon completing this ritual act of worship, they would be issued a certificate testifying that they had done their civic duty. Persons who did not participate in the ritual would have been viewed with political suspicion and contempt. Non-participation would have put a person at risk both politically and financially, as religious practices were entwined with trade guilds who could refuse to allow you to do business with them. Not worshiping the emperor/empire came with high costs.
The pressure to conform to the political and religious practices of the culture around them placed significant pressure on the Christians living in Smyrna. It is with that in mind that Jesus addresses the city.
Once again, the message is addressed to the angel of the church in Smyrna. In this opening, however, Jesus changes the way he refers to himself. The one who addresses the church is the one “who was dead and came to life.” This is an apparent reference to the motto that describes the city of Smyrna. The resurrection of a city, while challenging, is not miraculous. With this identification, Jesus seeks to remind those in Smyrna that there is a power at work in them and in the world more significant than the Roman empire’s power to restore a city.
The main body of the letter begins with words of affirmation. Jesus knows their afflictions. Remaining faithful to Jesus Christ has already cost them dearly. Jesus notes that they are poor, yet they are rich. By refusing to worship the local gods or to offer incense to the emperor, the Smyrnian Christians have placed themselves on the margins of society.
The problem is made worse by the large population of Jews in the city. Jews had earned the right to continue to practice their faith without interference. The Jews had also been given an exemption from burning incense in worship of the emperor. When Christianity began to spread in the city, some Christians likely continued to claim this exemption because they still considered themselves Jews. Gentile Christians could not claim the same exemption, which created a problem.
Jews who were not followers of Jesus saw the Christians as a threat to the peace and freedom they enjoyed with the Romans. So the Jews began to turn on the Christians by bringing a complaint of “atheism” (not participating in emperor worship or worship of the local gods) to the Roman authorities. The Roman legal system relied entirely on informants who would make them aware of legal infractions. In essence, the Jews engaged in a smear campaign against the Christians in Smyrna; and it worked.
When Jesus refers to the Jews as a “synagogue of Satan,” he’s using a bit of hyperbole which was expected in the day’s rhetoric. The implication is not that the Jews were worshipping Satan but that they were actively working against the work of God in the world.
“Do not fear….”
In verse 10, the message turns to words of support and affirmation. Amid the current reality of persecution and estrangement by and with the surrounding culture, Jesus tells them not to fear what they are about to suffer.
At this point, you might ask yourself why Jesus only offers words of encouragement in the face of inevitable suffering? The same question could be asked at many points in Revelation, and the answer is the same. Even though we may not be able to see it, God is working against the spiritual forces of evil to bring about redemption and restoration for all things. The struggle is ongoing.
In any struggle, there is resistance and consequences for taking a stand, and for the church in Smyrna, it is no different. They will be thrown in prison and tested for 10 days. The Romans did not throw people in jail as a form of punishment. Jail is where you went while awaiting trial, exile, or execution. Conditions in jail were not good, and the longer a person stayed in jail, the higher the chance that they would die of malnutrition or disease. Some scholars believe that the reference to ten days points out the average length of time a person could survive in jail.
If those in Smyrna are faithful during their persecutions and afflictions that would likely end in death, they will receive the crown of life. While they might be harmed by the first death, they will find peace, wholeness, and safety in the life to come.
Jesus’ call to the church in Smyrna is to faithfulness in the face of great suffering and loss. Too often in the church in America, the good news about Jesus Christ is marketed as a cure for whatever ails you. The church has peddled Jesus as a way to have a better and more fulfilled life in a variety of ways. Often it is insinuated that the benefits of faith in Christ will result in material prosperity and safety.
While there are tremendous benefits of a life of faithfulness, a safe passage through life is not guaranteed. If we are reading Jesus’ message to the church in Smyrna correctly, it seems as if faithfulness can be quite costly.
The church in Smyrna remained faithful even when it cost them financially. They remained steadfast even when it cost them socially. They remained faithful even to the point of death. They could do so because they had hope that death was not the end.
It is unlikely that any of us will suffer for our faith in the same way as the early church did. Nevertheless, the call from our surrounding culture is strong. Last week we noted that John used Babylon as a stand-in for the Roman empire. We said that both empires called people to give up what made them culturally or religiously distinctive to become good citizens of the empire.
While our social and cultural context is different than that of the early church, the temptation we face to give up what makes us distinctive remains. The world around us wants to give up loving selflessly. It wants us to give up forgiveness for revenge. It wants us to give up loving our enemy. It wants us to only think about ourselves and what we might get out of life instead of thinking about loving the least and lowest.
If we seek to remain faithful to what makes us distinctive as a follower of Christ, there will be a consequence. However, the words of Jesus call us to a faith that acknowledges that regardless of the cost of discipleship here and now, we will be safe in the end when Christ comes again.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why does Jesus refer to himself as the one “who was dead and came to life” (verse 8)?
In what ways were the Smyrnians afflicted?
It was expected that those living in Rome would burn incense in a temple in honor of and worship to the emperor once a year. What do you imagine might have been the consequence of refusing to do so?
What would you do if you were told you needed to offer incense, or something similar, in honor of an elected leader or a country?
Is there anything similar to the offering of incense that we’re expected to do today? If so, what is it?
The Jews in Smyrna had received an exemption from participating in emperor/empire worship. They were afraid that the Christians would ruin the peace they enjoyed with Rome by claiming the same expedition. So they made life difficult for Christians. If you were a Jew in Smyrna at the time, would you have acted similarly? If so, why? If not, why?
Jesus encourages the church to have faith and not to fear. What is the reason Jesus gives for the Christians not to fear even if death might result from their faithfulness?
Daniels, T. Scott, Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelation’s Letters for Today’s Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).