This life is full of troubles not only for the unbeliever but also for the one who believes in Jesus. One believer I know recently fell behind paying off a debt and the debtor filed for a judgment in court. Another believer told me a couple weeks ago that even with insurance she owes several hospitals large amounts of money and had to tell one area hospital that they wouldn’t get anything right now because they weren’t willing to take a payment of less than a hundred dollars on any of her bills. More frequently than ever before I’m hearing from Christians whose employers are demanding that they work on the Lord’s Day or lose their employment. I also hear quite often that Christians in retail jobs feel that they have to work on the Lord’s Day or they will not get enough hours to get the income that they need. These are all local examples. Moreover, there are more Christians in this area with cancer than I can count and several people in the church are battling multiple chronic health problems. These are all very real struggles and we have a Savior who knows our struggles and can sympathize with us. Jesus says, “I know your troubles and your poverty, but you are rich.” We are rich. This week I visited someone who told me that she has had the same blanket or quilt on her bed for the past 60 some years, but she said that she is rich. Her point was that she may not have had much in material blessings, but wealth is more than money and possessions. But we are even rich in money and possessions – we are rich compared to other parts of the world where Christians do not have the luxury of a cell phone, a television, a car, and many other things. Furthermore, we do not know hardship or trouble like those who experience persecution for believing in Jesus that lands them in prison for lengthy stays or even sentenced to death. We who believe may have to experience such struggles, but Jesus says:
- Too often we believe the lie that success is health and wealth.
- Before taking to heart a passage like this we might believe the lie that churches that are successful will be wealthy in cash blessings in the offering plates and have pews full of healthy members. There is a myth being promoted today that if we have enough faith then we can overcome illness and poverty. Many people want to hear a false gospel that says it is God’s will that we be happy and wealthy now. The apostle Paul said, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). And unless we take to heart such passages we might buy into the lie that good theology will always lead to greater church attendance and that successful churches will be full. (But then someone will say, “What about this other Bible-believing church that seems to have it all together? What do they have that we don’t.” And before you know it someone else will say, “Do you remember that time when everyone went to church, it was where you made business and political connections, everything else closed and you were expected to be there?”)
- The church at Smyrna was one of only two churches among the seven in Revelation that Jesus considered successful, but it was poor and suffering due to persecution. Misusing Old Testament passages that spoke of success using the picture of health and wealth, unbelieving Jewish people saw the persecution of the church at Smyrna as proof that the church was not blessed by God. Indeed, the Jewish unbeliever thought that the church at Smyrna was suffering due to the curse of God. The city of Smyrna had a reputation for being very loyal to Rome, especially because it had more than one temple in honor of Roman religion. It was not a safe place to live if you were not willing to submit to the emperor as your divine Lord and to sacrifice to the emperor on special occasions. If you did not participate in this civil religion then it would be very hard to socially and economically advance. Unless you belonged to one of the legally sanctioned religions, like Judaism, you would suffer. Therefore unbelieving Jews wanting to prove these Christians were cursed and wishing to destroy the church appealed to government officials to arrest and execute Christians. In doing so, Jesus points out the irony that His kinsmen are proving themselves to be false Jews, a synagogue of Satan. Satan is Hebrew for “accuser” and by their slander of the Christians in Smyrna they were doing the work of Satan. Indeed, they were no different than the people who attacked Daniel and his three friends in the Old Testament. Of course, this also means that the church at Smyrna belongs to true Israel. Thus success for Smyrna was not health or wealth. During this life the true Israel is often God’s suffering servant. (What then is success?)
- Success is faithful perseverance in following Jesus.
- Jesus called the church at Smyrna to faithfully persevere in following Him even if it meant following Him to their death. Jesus had nothing against this church, which is why Satan was working so hard to discourage the members of it. Some of them would be going to jail soon for their faith in Jesus that they might be tested and found faithful. Faithfulness is not only having right theology, but it is identifying with Jesus no matter the cost. For those who would give the ultimate sacrifice of their own life for the sake of the gospel, Jesus promises, “I will give you the crown of life.” The irony is that the defeat of earthly death means the victory of heavenly life. It was not as if the church in Smyrna just needed more faith and they would overcome persecution and poverty, but instead they might very well “overcome” persecution through dying for their faith in Jesus. Furthermore, there is the promise: “The one who conquers [other translations say: “overcomes”] will not be hurt by the second death.” In Revelation, the second death refers to the final judgment for unbelievers. He gives us a glimpse of the bigger picture. The synagogue of Satan was wrong to think that success is health and wealth in this life and to think that their ability to persecute the church to death or poverty meant that God disapproved of that church. Success for the church at Smyrna is faithful perseverance in following Jesus to the end in this life with the promise of a reversal of fortunes in the next life. (So what is success for us?)
- Success is not measured by comparison with other churches but by personal perseverance in following Jesus. (Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”)
- The Spirit says these things to the churches, but each one of us who believe will respond with faithful perseverance in following Jesus. Jesus says to each one of us, “I know your troubles and your poverty, but you are rich.” Jesus says to each one of us, “Follow me.” He gave us everything – His own self on the cross. Personal success is not having accumulated wealth in this life, for when we die someone who didn’t work for it will get it anyway. If it were, then Jesus wasn’t successful. Instead, Jesus has shown us by being faithful unto death, giving His own precious life for us, that success is giving generously. Jesus even said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Faithful personal perseverance in following Jesus includes sacrificial giving. God has given us together everything that we need for ministry as a church. Passages like this one invite us each to see how God has made us rich in order to bless others and to ask ourselves what more we might give.
- Each one of us who believe will respond with faithful perseverance in following Jesus, but the Spirit also says these things to this church. We as a church are called to faithfully persevere in following Jesus. We are invited to see reaching out to people living in poverty and expecting nothing in return as a success. We are invited to see ministering to children who do not yet have an income to give as a success. We are reminded that we should expect persecution to increase but success isn’t avoiding persecution – it is perseverance in the face of persecution. Ironically churches often grow under persecution though people may have less money to give if their persecutors have taken it away. We are reminded that we should expect to have to do more with less cash in the offering plate but success isn’t gathering wealth – it is perseverance in the face of poverty. Success for our church is not collecting land and investments and cash or being able to afford major building renovations, but success is doing ministry and giving generously. Churches that have a collecting mentality close and then presbytery gets their riches just as people who collect things die and then others who did not work for it get their collections. But churches that have a giving mentality are faithfully following Jesus . Thus successful stewardship is not managing to collect wealth to give Jesus when He comes but it is being faithful to our responsibilities and calling. The Spirit is encouraging us as a church to faithfully persevere in following Jesus. Thus I cannot promise crowns of gold in this life, but Jesus promises we will be rewarded with a crown of life in the next. Thanks be to God. Amen.