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The Letter to Smyrna
Revelation 2.8-11

I was involved some years ago in making a series of radio programmes where people from quite different backgrounds came together for an hour to discuss complex and challenging topics of the day. Since this was being made by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), there were some in-house guidelines. We were not supposed, for instance, to recommend particular brand-name products on air, since the publicly funded BBC does not advertise.

But I had not expected to be pulled up short simply for answering one of the questions. A listener had written in, asking the panel, ‘If you could choose your religious faith, what would it be, and why?’ Since I was the only obvious ‘religious’ representative on the panel, the person chairing the discussion asked me to speak first (each panellist was given about fifty seconds for an opening statement, and then we discussed it together). In my opening fifty seconds, I tried to make three points. First, I said that Christianity isn’t exactly a ‘religion’ in the sense people mean today; it’s much bigger than that, much more all-embracing. Then I pointed out that hardly anyone actually ‘chooses’ a faith, like someone in a supermarket picking out a particular brand of soup. Then I began to say why, granted all that, I would argue for the truth of the Christian faith and for the positive, healing, life-giving effect it has.

I was only a few words into that third section, which was after all answering the question, when I was interrupted by the chair. ‘Oh Tom,’ she said, ‘we can’t say that sort of thing on air. That’s proselytizing.’ Fortunately, the rest of the panel – all of them, I think, atheists or at least agnostics – came to my defence. Of course I had to be able to say it, they said. I’d been asked a question and I had to be able to answer it! So, despite the knee-jerk reaction of a lifelong BBC let’s-be-neutral-about-everything organizer, I was able to continue.

I tell that story because our world today, in the West at least, has become like that BBC employee: paranoid about any actual claims, not only that we might have the truth but that someone else might not. Only today I heard a snatch of a radio programme bending over backwards to explain the predicament of Muslim children in British schools during the Ramadan fast, and the second-order predicament of local communities and newspapers commenting on the policies the schools were adopting. We are hypersensitive about all such matters, in the way that someone with badly bruised toes will be hypersensitive about anyone walking anywhere near their feet.

And then we read the New Testament . . . and we find passages like this. ‘I know the blasphemy of those self-styled Jews.’ We recoil. How can anyone say such things? But in fact, in the real world (as opposed to the fantasy-world of the relativist), there are hard edges, hard questions, tough challenges. And in the early church, Jewish to the core, some of the hardest questions came straight out, as we see already in Paul. Who are the children of Abraham? Are they all his physical family (in which case, what about the descendants of Ishmael and Esau?), or the larger, worldwide family which God promised to Abraham? It was not least the scandal of a community which gave the second answer (Abraham’s family are now multi-national) which led Saul of Tarsus to persecute the early Christians violently, and which then got him into the same trouble when he changed sides. But, as we see when we look at other Jewish renewal movements of the period, like the one at Qumran, we see that this was essentially a struggle within Judaism, not against Judaism. The early church firmly clung to the ancient Jewish hope, and the ancient Jewish scriptures, and they claimed that they were all fulfilled in Jesus the Jewish Messiah.

In western Turkey, by the time this book was written, it is likely that the church contained a fair mixture of Jews and non-Jews. But there was a large and lively synagogue community as well, whose members did not believe that Jesus was God’s Messiah, sent to Israel to announce God’s kingdom, and raised from the dead to prove the point. Since the nub of the Christian faith was not that this was a new ‘religion’, invented out of nothing, but rather that it was the fulfilment of the ancient promises to, and hopes of, the people of Israel, this immediately caused a problem. This was especially so when members of the synagogue, not content with their own rejection of Jesus, actively blasphemed him, perhaps calling down curses upon him.

In our politically correct age it would be much more convenient if these real-life challenges did not happen. But they did, and they do. It is impossible simultaneously to say that Jesus was raised from the dead and so is God’s true Messiah, Israel’s king and the world’s true lord, and that he wasn’t and isn’t. Who, therefore, is the true Jew? Paul already gave the answer in Romans 2.25 –29: the one who is the ‘Jew’ in the heart. John would agree – and so, according to this letter, would Jesus himself. This means that, like it or not, the Jewish synagogue in Smyrna has become a ‘satan-synagogue’ – not just in a vague, general, abusive sense, but in the rather sharply defined sense that, as ‘the satan’ is, literally, ‘the accuser’, the synagogue in town has been ‘accusing’ the Christians of all kinds of wickedness. In particular, in a city where Roman imperial presence and influence was everything, the Jews would have been exempt from taking part in the festivities of the imperial cult . . . and they may well have been accusing, to the authorities, the Christians who were claiming that exemption as well. Perhaps it was accusations like that, with social and political consequences, that had given Smyrna’s Christians a taste of poverty in an otherwise rich city (verse 9).

All this is at the heart of the message to Smyrna. In this church the Lord finds nothing to criticize. His main task is to warn that fierce persecution is on the way; and he does so as the one who is First and Last, who was dead and came to life. (There may be a local allusion here, because Smyrna, as a city, had once been destroyed and then rebuilt.) Whatever happens, the times and the fates of the Christians in Smyrna are safe in his hands. The devil may well imprison and ‘test’ some of them. The ‘ten days’ here is likely to be figurative, since a ‘day’, in writing like John’s, sometimes means a year or a more general period of time.

The warning is again surrounded with promises that are immediately relevant to a church under this threat. Those who are ‘faithful all the way to death’, as Jesus himself had been (Philippians 2.7– 8), will receive ‘the crown of life’, meaning perhaps ‘life as a crown’: that is, the true, renewed life of God’s new age, whose possessors will be marked out by it as royalty is marked out by crowns. Again, Smyrna itself was thought of as a city with a crown, due to the way its splendid architecture used the natural advantages of a steep hill to good effect.

The final promise points in the same direction. Anyone who is, quite naturally, afraid that they may face death for their beliefs is introduced to an idea to which John will return near the end of the book. There are, it seems, two forms of death. The first is the bodily death to which all will come except the generation still alive when the Lord returns. Jesus has already passed that way, and those who belong to him can know that he will first welcome them on the other side and then, at the end, raise them to new life in his final new world. But the ‘second death’ is the ultimate fate of those who steadfastly and deliberately refuse to follow Jesus, to worship the one God who is revealed in him. This ‘second death’ will, it seems, do for the entire personality what the ‘first death’ will do for the physical body.

This is a terrifying prospect, to which John will return in chapter 20. But his point at the moment is this: do not be afraid to face the first death. Some of you will have to do that. To ‘conquer’ – to face that martyrdom in faithful patience – will mean that you will have nothing to fear from the ‘second death’. Be content to go with Jesus through the first death. He was dead, and came to life; and so will you.

Taken from Revelation for Everyone – by Tom Wright

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