Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Revelation 2:8-11 (1)

This is the first part of my script from Sunday morning's preach at Reading Family Church. You can listen to it online here.

Smyrna was to be found about 35 miles north of Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. It’s in today’s northern Turkey, more or less where the city of Izmir is today. It was an important city in the region as it had supported the Roman Empire for over 200 years and in 26BC had won the honour to build the only temple in Asia of worship to the Emperor Tiberius. In those days Roman Emperors considered themselves and to demanded to be worshipped as Gods. So we can see that this was a city of vital strategic importance for the Roman Empire, and also therefore, to the church in Smyrna. This letter is one of only two in the series we’re currently in where there is no rebuke from Jesus at all, only warning and encouragement. And what encouragement was to come to this church, as we’ll see.

So let’s look at verse 8 together: these are the words of Him of is the first and last, who died and came to life again. This opening to the letter will become very significant to the Christians who read it as we’ll see later, but let’s unpack what it means first. Who is Jesus? How does He introduce Himself to suffering Christians? As the first and last. As a great big eternal God. As a God who was there at the beginning. It can be to said that what happened before the Bible started and the world was created is a bit of a mystery. But this we do know. That the Trinity was there, that Jesus was there. He was at the beginning, before the beginning with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. He was there, he is the first. What great comfort for these persecuted Christians to know that the God they worship isn’t someone who came late to the party, He’s not a God that is part of creation, He’s not a God that is transient, that once wasn’t and might not be again. Jesus is the First. He has always been.

This was said to comfort the original readers, and it should comfort us. The all knowing God is the first. We can trust Him in our time of need, when we need comfort or protection we don’t have to turn to something created by man, to a statue or a book of rules...we can turn to Jesus, who is from the beginning.

And what else is Jesus? He is the last. Not only there at the beginning, but there at the end. Jesus not only existed in perfect unity, love and joy with the Father and Holy Spirit before time began, He also will after time ends. In fact Jesus Himself will wrap time up. We see slightly later on in Revelation 20 that when Jesus returns He will end time with judgment even earth and sky will flee from His presence. We see right at the end of the Bible in Revelation 22 Jesus is there inviting us to come and drink with Him, inviting us to enjoy the wedding super with Him. Jesus really is the first and the last. He was there at the start, He’ll be there at the end. Be comforted Smyrnain Christians, Christ was there at the start, He’ll be there at the end. He is forever. Your faith is not in vain. Your faith is in what is true and real and deep. Jesus stands astride of time, all of it under His control, all if it, serving His eternal purposes.

Jesus also introduces Himself as He who died and came to life again. The resurrection is key to our understanding of who Jesus is. Of what He has done. The reason why there is so much controversy around what Jesus did or didn’t say, the reason why so many people dismiss the claims of Christianity out of hand, is because they refuse to look at the resurrection. In my opinion anyway. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith, it is the key to our assurance that Jesus is who He says he is. How do we know, how did the original readers know, that Jesus is the first and last? Because He died and came to life again. Jesus is different. Jesus is unique. As we’ve already seen Smyrna was a seat of Emperor worship in the Roman Empire. We might well ask them how many Roman Emperors have died and risen again? Then how are they any different to anyone else? On what grounds do you worship Him? Ironically these were probably the questions that the Christian in this city were asking that got them into so much trouble. Trouble they were suffering, and trouble that was to come... as we’ll see. But just let it sink in...who Jesus is. Jesus is not who most people say He is. Not just a good teacher, a prophet, a man of some significance to some people or of no significance to anyone. Jesus is the first and last, he died and came to life again. If the Smyrnain Christians were to persevere, if we are to persevere, we must keep this big view of a big Jesus in our minds. We must live our lives before Him and worship Him as He is.

Lets look at verse 9. ‘I know your affliction and your poverty, but you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a Synagogue of Satan’. From what we know of this period at this time, we can speculate about what sort of suffering the Christians here were undergoing, about why they needed to be so wonderfully reminded about the realities of who Christ is. The Jewish religion was tolerated by the Roman Empire, and up until the period that this letter was written that gave Christians some protection under a Jewish umbrella, as it were. Christians were viewed by Rome as a Jewish sect and therefore tolerable. That all changed after the persecutions by Emperor Nero, and some Jewish people, who were happy to worship Roman so called ‘gods’ alongside God as they thought He’d revealed Himself in the Old Testament were only too ready to gain favour with the Roman authorities by pointing out that Christians were in fact nothing to do with them

Driven by the fear that the synagogue was losing too many to the church they were ready to do what they could do to make life almost impossible for Christians in Smyrna. This is what Jesus is talking about when He says ‘the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not’ They would have been saying that Christians were rebels with another King other than Caesar (which is true) and that this means they were dangerous and harmful (which was false)

So that was the affliction, bought on by the slander of those who said they were Jews but were not, but what about the second half of the first sentence in verse 9? What does Jesus mean when He says I know…your poverty- yet you are rich’? These Christians would have had very little in the way of material possessions. Not only because of the large financial and employment sanctions that would have been placed on them for being Christians, especially in a centre of Roman cult worship like Smyrna. But also because what they did have would have been taken away in the ‘affliction’ mentioned already in verse 9. And yet Christ calls them rich. Now this would have been mightily comforting to the Christians reading this. As they looked around at others in their city who had more than them. Better food, better cattle, more job opportunities. And it should work the same way for us as well. Christ does not call us to be materially rich.

I remember a few months ago I was riding the tube during rush hour. And the carriage I was on was packed with people my age that had more money than me. Nicer clothes, more toys, niftier haircuts. And for the first time since graduating I was really jealous. I wanted nicer clothes, a job with a bigger salary… But though I am poor, I am rich. This verse should challenge us as well, because I’m not poor. Globally, because I slept under a roof last night and ate breakfast this morning, I’m probably one of the richest people in the world. And if you did so are you.. This verse is challenging because if I lived in Zimbabwe right now, would Christ on His own be enough for me? If I lived in 1st Century Smyrna, would Christ have been enough for me? When I go on mission and me and Rachel are the only two English speaking people in our city, will Christ be enough for me. Will we count ourselves rich, even when we are poor?

I love the first two words of this verse ‘I know’. The magnificent Christ who is the first and last knows the affliction and poverty of these Christians. We’ll come back to this.

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