“I know your tribulation and your poverty but you are rich”
“Be Faithful unto Death”
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. 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. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.’”
Smyrna, one of only two churches in which Jesus finds no fault, at least none he’s telling them about. I must have taught on the subject of Smyrna seven times. That’s actually literal, not an analogy. Seven may not seem like a lot but having the confidence to get up in front of multiple people, seven different times, knowing James 3:1, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.” And John’s words within Revelation itself, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.” I must admit, I see more every time I study it, and it’s far less than 150 words. Having said all of this, here I go again.
Smyrna was located north of Ephesus, in fact, the order of the churches is in a “missional” formation. John’s letters would have sailed North East from Patmos to Ephesus, then North to Smyrna, then traveled South East to the rest of the churches. I cannot say with any certainty that those in Smyrna read the letters to the other churches, but I would like to think they did, and should have. What would they think? Well, we’re going to prison but at least we’re not them, perhaps? This, of course, is pure conjecture on my part but I do wonder and I will tell you why.
Look again at the text, it’s short but oh-so-painfully sweet. The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. 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. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.’”
I wonder because even though some were promised prison and the rest were already suffering unimaginable persecution, the Lord never even suggested that he would remove their lampstand. He never promised that he might come–never said to repent. Also notice the “synagogue of Satan.”
I can only imagine that they took the news well. Honestly, they had been tested and were being tested and were about to be tested. Jesus gives them no indication that they wouldn’t pass the test. He does say to be faithful and overcome, but it seems like a far cry from, repent. Alright, enough of my conjecture and thinking out loud, let’s take our vitamins.
Context we’ve read the intro to Revelation and letter to Ephesus and this letter, twice. We’re familiarizing ourselves with imagery and analogy.
Author: Jesus dictating to John
Audience: The gathering of God’s true people in Smyrna and most likely the other churches.
Aspiration: That they would be brave, not lose heart, keep the faith.
Genre: Epistle within an apocalypse; expecting some imagery is expected
Exegis, Expository, Examples: We should remember what we have read and we have the benefit of reading ahead too. As I believe they also did.
Dividing the word: And here we go. I guess to start I should give my opinion on the angel in: To the angel in the church of Smyrna. Was that the pastor, a literal angelical being, or some sort of imagery or analogy? There is no reason to take this as a metaphor, being a straight forward sentence. Many commentators believe that because the early church had a plurality of elders it must be a heavenly being. Others dismiss that notion because no other mention of a guardian church angel is ever mentioned. Nor does it make sense to have an angel communicate with John for him to communicate with other angels to communicate with the churches. Both arguments have fragments of truth. For the most part I agree with the latter, however it is true that they probably did have a plurality of elders and many people would prophesy and preach. But I keep it simple. Literally, angel means, messenger. Like we read in Built-in Blessing, those that read aloud–messenger, and those that heard–audience, would both be blessed. I take this sentence as literally as possible. To the messenger in the church of Smyrna write; and he would read it to the others. I don’t know how many people could read in Smyrna. Anyway, at least we won’t have to go through all that for the rest of the letters.
Now, the next line does involve some imagery. The first and last, who was dead but has come back to life. Literally he died and literally he came back to life, no question. But in each of the letters, Jesus harkens back to his descriptions in chapter one–to what John saw. And further in the letter we read, “be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life. Death–life, death–life.
Jesus knew their tribulation and poverty, and we don’t. But we can try to imagine. The word for poverty here means more than poverty. We can’t imagine real poverty let alone their poverty which was worse than that. Literally it could be translated as absolutely destitute. No money, no food, literally, nothing. And yet, Jesus told them that they were rich; why? Because of the hope that they had and because they hadn’t been corrupted like the other churches. And–this is difficult to digest, because of said poverty, they were passing the test. And–these so-called Jews, yet they were actually Satan’s gathering, were giving them a hard time, trumping their tribulation. They were persecuted for following God by people claiming to be following God. They called themselves Jews, don’t miss this. Jesus didn’t call them followers, they did. Jesus determines who are his followers, not the other way around. He was telling them that they were his, not the synagogue of Satan. I imagine that was quite comforting. Jesus, kindly tells them, I know, I see it. Don’t worry, I have you. It will get worse but in the end, you’ll have your crown. And by deduction, they’ll be hurt by the second death.
The tribulation for ten days: numbers do have meaning in Revelation, as in the rest of the Bible, but simply put, tribulation ten days is Jesus saying, a short time; a tiny slice compared to eternity. Most likely not a literal ten days but it is possible. But like the weeks in Daniel, days probably represents a longer period of time but is still an infinitesimal amount compared to eternity. Now, that’s easy for me to say, I know, I can’t fathom their distress but Jesus was comforting them while being truthful.
There we have it, absolutely impoverished, persecuted by those who claimed to know God, and some about to be thrown in prison, but all told to be faithful unto death. Nevertheless, they had Jesus himself to comfort them and be their reward for keeping the Faith.
It’s difficult for me to imagine their faith amid all that tribulation. He who has an ear, that is who will listen, let him hear, understand, what the Spirit is saying to the churches.