In delivering messages to the angels of seven first century churches, Jesus generally confronted them about problem areas. But there was one church that didn’t receive any “here’s what you’re doing wrong” counsel: the church in Smyrna, known today as Izmir, Turkey.
Jesus first lets them know that He’s aware of what they’re up against. He starts by telling them He knew of their trouble and their poverty. Instead of stopping there, though, He contradicts the statement:
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) (Rev. 2:9a).
They’re poor—Jesus didn’t say this was untrue. But they are rich. This could possibly be a comparative indicator similar to what we experience in the US: in comparison to “the one percent” most of us would say we are poor, but in comparison to the majority of the people in the world, we are rich.
More likely, I think, the statement shows the spiritual conditions versus the physical. The believers in Smyrna were in fact poor, but because of their relationship with Christ they were simultaneously rich.
God’s riches do not negate the conditions of this world. Our brothers and sisters who fled Mosul may be poor now. They’ve been forced out of their homes, have only the belongings they could carry, may not have a way to make a living in whatever refugee camp they’ve landed. They are poor and are suffering tribulation physically in the truest sense.
And yet they are still rich. They are heirs of the kingdom which God has promised to those who love Him. They have the Holy Spirit who lives in them, guides them, seals them, intercedes in prayer for them.
They have Christ whose work at the cross provides them with forgiveness of sins, redemption, the cancellation of their debt, who clothes them with righteousness, bears their burdens if they cast them on Him. In every spiritual way conceivable, they are rich.
The second thing Jesus said about the church was that He knew “the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9b). Apparently pretenders were among them.
Jesus then moved to a prophetic message introduced by a command: Do not fear. They were about to suffer, Jesus said, and “the devil” was about to cast them in prison, they were about to face tribulation, though it would be for a specific, limited time.
He concluded with a command too: Be faithful until death.
I’m not sure this message inspires me to not fear, and I’m not the target audience of this message. Or am I? I’d have to say, of course I am, as are all Christians who make up the body of Christ.
The details vary in our circumstances, but we are all rich regardless of our outward conditions. And we all have to cope with pretenders. We all are up against Satan’s attempt to imprison us in sin and guilt and the law.
Clearly, God does not promise us a Better Life Now here on this earth. He simply does not do so. This passage, written to the church in Smyrna, is still written, like all other Scripture, for all believers to receive doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.
So, like Smyrna, we are to face what’s coming our way, unafraid and faithful until death.
The cool thing is, we, like Smyrna, have the promise for that faithfulness: the crown of life and, if we overcome, the escape from the “second death.”
Do I know what the second death is? No. But I figure it’s more important that I know how to overcome so that I won’t have to worry about being hurt by it.
But now I wonder if Christ isn’t the One who has already overcome. We know He has. And we know we who are in Christ will be like Him. So are not believers in the redemptive work of Christ already those who have overcome? Again, I think that’s the most logical understanding of the admonition.
In short, despite the way the world might look, with Ebola in Africa and tornadoes in Boston, with flooding in Las Vegas and bombs flying back and forth between Gaza and Israel, with Russian-backed terrorists fighting to divide Ukraine and ISIS attacking Christians, with Nigerian girls held captive by Muslim terrorists, the believer in Christ can laugh because we understand Jesus Christ has won and is winning and will claim His victory one day soon.
It’s not really complicated. We aren’t to fear, and we are to remain faithful for as long as God gives us breath.