By Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D., S. Louis and Ann W. Armstrong
Professor of Religion, Samford University
Steadfast in Difficulties
Jesus’ words to the believers in Smyrna speak courage into their hearts of all who suffer due to their faithfulness to Christ.
We are rich in spiritual blessings because of Christ. (8–9)
John describes Jesus in terms that emphasize His power over all life and creation. He is “the first and the last” the one who “died and came to life.” Since He has demonstrated that He reigns over life and death, we, like the believers in Smyrna, know we can entrust ourselves completely to His hands.
The church had experienced opposition far beyond anything that which most of us have to deal with today. People in the Roman Empire were expected to offer sacrifices to Rome and its emperors in temples established in their honor or to suffer the consequences for their failure to do so. Jews were exempted from that requirement and Christians benefited from the same exemption as long as they were perceived to be part of a Messianic movement within Judaism.
The “slander” spoken against the Christians in Smyrna was probably the accusation that the followers of Christ were not really Jews and thus were not exempt from the requirement to offer sacrifices to Rome.
When John refers to “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan,” it is likely he is turning against the believers’ accusers the very accusation that had been leveled against them by other Jews.
The believers in Smyrna were feeling quite vulnerable and lacking in resources to defend themselves. Christ reminds them that regardless of how they seem in terms of usual human assessments, they are actually rich in Christ and have resources in Him that nonbelievers could not even imagine. Their Lord has power over life and death and a reign that extends beyond the confines of earthly time. The riches of grace and glory that Christ offers believers, and the infinite blessing of His presence and fellowship, have value beyond any comparison with paltry materialistic and social riches that will not last into eternity or have eternal value.
We do not need to fear adversity. (10)
The One we serve has power that makes the weapons of our spiritual enemies (including the devil) seem laughable by comparison. Once physical death is recognized to be relatively insignificant compared to the eternal rewards in store for faithfulness to our Lord, the suffering that could otherwise instill fear no longer has any teeth.
The church will experience a limited period of tribulation, that is, of various kinds of persecution including social marginalization resulting in significant economic losses, as well as the imprisonment of some of its members and quite possibly the death of some in the church. But God’s reward for obedience will always be infinitely greater than anything it might cost us.
As Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
We do not need to fear death. (11)
While they and we must be ready to face all kinds of persecution and even death, John reminds us that all who faithfully hold fast to their Christian testimony despite terrible adversity will, in the end, know life and glory with their Lord which can never fade, weaken or be taken away.
We are reminded of the truth that was stated so well by Jim Elliot, the famous Christian martyr who died in 1956 as he sought to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” When we turn our lives over to Christ, what we might lose will never compare to what we have gained for eternity.