Often we read the Book of Revelation with either stoic intellectualism or mystical symbolism (literally so steeped in “what does it all mean?”) that we miss an important element in reading the Bible, in that we are often emotionally disconnected with the narrative. This is a story, a narrative of the church, the actual people, flesh, blood, spirit. They were very much like us.
A Hard Rain Falling on the Early Church:
In the letters to Smyrna & Pergamus, both churches were enduring and surviving in hard circumstances. The believers in Pergamus had just seen a dear friend, Antipas, suffer and die for his religious beliefs. The King of the Universe had seen it, knew it, and made note of it while dictating this letter to the apostle John.
Likewise Smyrna lived in similar dynamics. There was a lot of pressure on these churches, the Roman state didn’t care who you worshipped as long as you were obedient to the state and the emperor as your ultimate master. Roman citizens were required at this time to burn incense in honor of the emperor and receive a “certificate” of having done so. The Christians had to chose between compromising their principals- being syncretistic in their beliefs, or they chose to live by their convictions “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Jesus called Pergamus out on this. Even though they’d continued in The Way even after seeing a friend brutally killed, they’d held fast, they’d not denied Jesus… yet they’d also eaten meat sacrificed to idols and participated in the sexual sins of the culture. For this Jesus calle them out.
Smyrna is one of two churches not to receive a rebuke. Times were harsh and persecution was coming. Jesus encourages them “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich)…fear non of those things you are about to suffer: prison, suffering, even death…”
Emotionally Connected to the Scripture:
I once read a story how gunmen and terrorists had stormed a church in Iraq resulting in over 30 people killed… Later that same day this the story had already been taken off the front page and filed somewhere way back. As I read the letter to Smyrna the emotion of what was going on there 2000 years ago hit me hard. If you’ve ever lost someone then you know how quickly it can happen, and you understand the emotional pain accompanied by the loss. I’d become emotionally attached to the story unfolding, the Bible had come to life.
But Jesus made promises to Smyrna & Pergamus. To Pergamus he promised “hidden manna” and a “white stone with a secret new name written thereon”- They were called not to participate in the big banquets dedicated to the gods, but here Jesus uses a term of the day. In these times, when you were invited to a party, servants would deliver to you an invitation; it was a stone with your name written on it, and manna was food provided from heaven, as well as a symbol of Jesus body as food for the church.
Smyrna was promised a crown of life, not a kingly crown but a victors garland like in the ancient Olympics. The most prized crown of all, eternal life.
These two churches no doubt had Psalm 23 written in their hearts “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…”
Faith fears no evil.