Midweek Lent 1
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠
The second letter of our Lord Jesus in Revelation is to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor that had become fairly well-to-do because of its firm loyalty to Rome and the Roman empire. Smyrna was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honor of the goddess of Rome. There was also a temple built to Tiberias Caesar, and to the Roman Senate. Because of Smyrna’s strong allegiance to the empire, they were rewarded with imperial monies that built a well-known stadium, a noted library, and a large public theater. Rome referred to Smyrna as “the crown” of Asia.
These circumstances presented some trouble for the Christians who lived there. For believers could not take part in the various pagan temple rites that would’ve been common among the citizens of that city. This caused economic hardship to many believers. How were Christians supposed to get a decent job when everyone thought of them as irreligious and unpatriotic for not taking part in the imperial worship? Even though the church would pray for the Caesar as God’s civil authority and would obey the laws and pay the taxes, they would still be looked on with suspicion. Through a serious distortion of what the Lord’s Supper was, rumors abounded that Christians were cannibals, eating the body and drinking the blood of some victim. In this sort of context, it’s easy to see how most believers were poor. Jesus says here, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”
During certain periods in the early church outright persecution of Christians would take place. All someone had to do during these times was to bring a charge against someone for being a Christian, and they could be imprisoned or put to death. Often those who had been charged as Christians would be given an opportunity to deny their faith or recant it by offering up incense to Caesar and saying “Caesar is Lord.” If they performed that act of worship and loyalty to the Roman emperor, then they could go free. However, if they didn’t, then they could lose their life. Believers could not say, “Caesar is Lord,” but only, “Jesus is Lord.”
One of the groups that was giving Christians trouble in Smyrna was the Jews. Jesus says here, “I know the blasphemy of those say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” True Jews, true Israelites believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior. But these were blasphemers, in league with the evil one. For the name “Satan” literally means, “accuser.” And they were accusing the Christians to the authorities in order to do them harm. These Jews did not like the pagan worship of the Romans, but they seemed to hate the Christians even more passionately.
One famous Christian from Smyrna who was martyred was a man named Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in Smyrna. This old man was brought into the stadium before the crowds, who shouted at him, “Away with the atheist!” See, they thought of Christians as atheists, because Christians had a God you couldn’t see and wouldn’t bow down to their gods, whom you could see. But bishop Polycarp turned to the crowd, and with a wave of his hand said to them, “Away with the atheists!” After refusing to renounce the Lord Jesus whom he had served for 86 years, Polycarp was burned to death.
So, how does all of this apply to us? Well, thankfully in one sense, things aren’t so dire for us yet as they were for those in Smyrna. But still, consider this: Roman citizens made a god and a religion out of their empire and their rulers. In a similar vein, are people in this country sometimes more religiously fervent about their patriotism than about Christ and His Word? Do we ever see symbols of our country and symbols of religion being combined and intermingled–angels holding the American flag, or flag draped crosses, or July 4th church services that are more pro-USA than they are pro-Jesus? We must always be on guard against the mixing and confusing of the civil realm and the spiritual realm. For to make any worldly thing, even our country, the object of our worship and highest loyalty, is to commit idolatry.
On the economic side, being a Christian can also present challenges to God’s people today. Refusing to engage in unethical practices like everyone else seems to be doing can close the door to advancement at work. Likewise, having it known that you’re against abortion or homosexuality or living together before marriage, or that you believe that the Bible is literally true and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life can cause you to be ostracized or thought of as extreme. That’s certainly how the cultural elite today want to paint the church. We’re not yet faced with demands to deny the faith or be executed. But we are tempted to compromise and downplay what we believe and go with the flow so that we don’t lose our social or economic standing. Giving such homage to the spirit of the culture is also a form of idolatry that we must be on guard against.
To all of this Jesus says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.” To live in fear of what men can do to us is not to live in trust of our Creator and Redeemer God. In the Gospel Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Rather, let us learn to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. For we are of great value to Him. Jesus reminds us here, “I am the First and the Last.” In other words, “I was here before your enemies were, and I’ll be here long after they’re dead and gone. So do not fear them; I will deliver you from them.” “I am the One who was dead and came back to life. They did their worst to me and failed. So also, they may cause you grief or pain or even death, but they can do nothing to separate you from My love.” “You will have tribulation, but it will only be for ten days; in other words, it has a limit and an end when it will all be over.” “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Smyrna may have been called the crown of Asia, but it wasn’t long before it’s edifices were piles of broken stone, as was the case also with Rome. It was a crown that faded. But Jesus gives a crown that does not fade away, that not even death can touch. For the crown of glory we wear is His own. The life that we have is His own eternal life. That is how Jesus can say to those who are poor, “You are rich.” For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. St. Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” Not only will we be with our Savior Jesus, but we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
We are given to wear the crown of life because Jesus was given to wear the crown of thorns. He bore our curse and died our death–not only our first death, but also our second death. That is to say, not only did He suffer temporal death but also and especially He suffered eternal death and hell for us on the cross. That second, eternal death is conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It has no power over you any longer. That’s why Jesus says, “He who overcomes [by faith] shall not be hurt by the second death.” Rather, we look forward to the resurrection of the body.
“Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.” To confess Jesus before men is to say “yes” to Him when the world wants you to say “no” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure.” To confess Jesus before men is to be willing to let it be known that Jesus is your Lord and the One you stake your life on. And if you’ve faltered in confessing Jesus in the past, remember Peter, who denied Christ three times but was three times forgiven and restored. So also, all your sins are forgiven, and you are restored in Jesus. He has said an unwavering “yes” to you in your baptism, confessing your name before His Father in heaven. And on the Last Day He will again say, “Yes, this one was born in Zion; this one is Mine.”
“Be faithful until 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.
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠