Christianity 201

January 26, 2017

Keep Calm and Carry On: The Letter to Smyrna

by Clarke Dixon

Convert to another religion, pay a heavy tax, or die? Which would you choose? This is a choice which many Christians have had to make as ISIS spread its evil. We do not face that kind of pressure in North America, but we do face subtle pressures that can gnaw away at our passion for Jesus. There is the pressure to choose materialism as a worldview. This is not materialism meaning a love of things, but a way of looking at the world that will not admit the supernatural. And if we will not be materialists, well then there is a pressure to affirm every religion as equally valid. Such pressures are subtle, but they are there.

Pressure on Christians is nothing new. In fact in our second letter of Revelation chapter two we read of a Christian community under pressure.

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. Revelation 2:8-11

What pressures are the Christians in Smyrna under? In the Roman way of doing things, emperor worship was expected, as was fitting into a society which had many beliefs and practices that went against the Christian way of life. Stick to your, or rather Christ’s, principles, and you could find yourself estranged from the majority, shunned as odd and stupid, and your business boycotted. This may be behind the reference to the Christians in Smyrna being in poverty in verse 9. As an aside, whenever we Christians are the majority, we do well to remember the “Golden Rule” of Jesus in the area of economic opportunities.

Due to some wise decisions from Rome, some religions could get a pass and be lawfully different, as happened at times for the Jews. But here is another side from which there is pressure against the Christians. The Roman officials often thought of Christians as being a sect of Judaism, and hence Christians could also enjoy some peace. However, if the Jews turned on the Christians, they could be out in the cold and would need to fend for themselves. That will not be easy when they consistently claim that “Jesus is Lord,” which means of course that Caesar is not. You can think of it this way; it is as if the Jews are travelling through Roman territory on a bus. They are allowed to do this safely so long as they remain on the bus and don’t disturb the locals. Some of the Jews on the bus realize that the driver of this bus is, and has been all along, Jesus, and so become Christ followers. Some don’t like that and throw the Christ followers off the bus. Actually they throw the Christ followers under the bus. This explains why at least some of the Jews in Smyrna are referred to in a not-so-nice way in verse 9: “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” These particular Jews are actively working against the God they profess to love and serve. So with pressure from Jews and Romans alike, what are the Christians to do? What are we to do with the pressures we might face today?

First, do not fear: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (verse 10). Fear has its tightest grip on us when we do not know what to expect. But we know what to expect.

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. . .” John 15:20

“Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Tim3:12

It should never surprise a Jesus follower when pressures come. It does not surprise God. He knows about it: “I know your affliction and your poverty” (verse 9)

Second, remain faithful: “Be faithful until death” (verse 10). Jesus gives us the example:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.  Philippians 2:5-8

Third, look to Jesus. He is described as “the first and the last” (verse 8). What a contrast between He who has all eternity in His hands and those who have their hands on the Christians for only “ten days” (verse 10). Whether we are to take those as being ten literal days or as symbolic of a set time, it is a limited, and very short time in comparison to eternity.

Looking to Jesus, we are also to know that He “was dead and came to life” (verse 8). If the Christians in Smyrna face death, they can know that Jesus faced it first. And remember how that turned out in the end!

Fourth, look to what lasts into eternity. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (verse 10). This is not the crown of a king or queen here, but the crown given in ancient times to victors in athletic games. Being killed for following Jesus is not the end of life, but the completion of a race. Celebrations come next.

Further: “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death” (verse 11). The second death refers to complete removal from the presence of God and the removal of all the blessings that come from His presence. While the Christians in Smyrna ought to be full of hope, their persecutors ought to be full of fear. We are reminded of the words of Jesus:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 

Fifth, be ready to die, not kill. While this is not stated explicitly, we should note that there is not a hint in this letter to Smyrna of “you will face incredible pressure, so get ready to fight.” In fact there is not a hint of this attitude anywhere in the New Testament. Being faithful to Jesus means dying, not killing. You might justify killing in the name of a nation; for example, killing for the common defence of people who could happen to be from all kinds of religious backgrounds. But violence in the name of Jesus, or for the sake of Christianity is not an option for the follower of Jesus. Where it has happened, there have been complexities around the forces of history and confusion around the separation of Church and State, or lack thereof. Jesus carried a cross and not a sword. He encourages the Christians in Smyrna to do likewise.

Is there an increasing pressure on Christians in Canada to be less passionate about Jesus? It is not the first time Christians have faced pressure. May we not fear, but instead remain faithful, looking to Jesus, looking to what lasts into eternity, and resisting every urge toward violence.

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)


Weekly C201 contributor Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Read today’s and other sermon summaries at his blog, or go directly to this article via this link.

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