Jesus Wins! – Part 5: The Upside-down Crown

 

Rev. 2:8-11

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander 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. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ [1]

Fifty-nine years after he first read the Revelation of Jesus Christ to his congregation, Polycarp, the 86-year-old Bishop of Smyrna and former student of John the Apostle, faced a Roman prosecutor in front of a screaming, bloodthirsty crowd in Smyrna’s amphitheater. “Have respect for your old age…. Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, ‘Away with the Atheists,’” pleaded the proconsul.  “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ.”

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” The angry crowd present in the amphitheater rushed out to find wood. Even on their Sabbath, the Jews in the crowd eagerly helped to gather wood for the great pyre onto which Polycarp was tied and burned alive.[2]

There is little doubt that Polycarp recalled the words his mentor had written directly from the mouth of the Savior so long ago on Patmos, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. …Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Smyrna, a wealthy port city of about 200,000 people, lay roughly 35 miles north up the coast from Ephesus on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. An important road extended eastward over which the produce of the rich valley of the Hermus moved. In exports, Smyrna was second only to Ephesus.[3] It was settled 7 centuries before Christ and destroyed by war during the late 5th century. Alexander the Great laid out plans for the new city which were carried out in 290 B.C. The ruined acropolis on top of Mt. Pagos was rebuilt. It was known from ancient times as the “crown of Smyrna” and the amphitheater at which Polycarp was martyred sat on the slope of Pagos below “the crown.”  Smyrnaen coins featured the Roman Goddess Fortune (Fortuna) wearing a victory wreath on her head; the city was famous for its athletic games.[4]

A point of supreme pride for the people of Smyrna, they were the first city of the entire region to side with Rome at a time with the rest of the area was under the sway of the Carthaginian empire. To persuade Rome of their loyalty and cement an alliance, in 195 B.C. Smyrna created a cult to worship the city of Rome and the goddess Roma. They erected a temple to Roma and spread their new Rome-worshipping religion throughout the empire over the next century. [5]

In 23 B.C. Smyrna won a competition over 10 other imperial cities to build a temple to Emperor Tiberius. Smyrna had large temples for Zeus and Cybele. City streets were named after its many pagan temples. Smyrna also had a large and wealthy Jewish population that was actively hostile to Christians. If Ephesus was intolerant of “unpatriotic” Christians, they were utterly detested in the birthplace of the religion that worshipped all things Roman. Christians’ refusal to worship Rome, its emperors and its demonic pantheon froze them out of business and society, leaving believers of Smyrna in the deepest level of poverty.

NO SYMPATHY CARD

We noted last week that what we commonly call “letters” to the seven churches are not letters at all. They are prophecies from Jesus through John contained in ONE letter. Every church will hear the same Revelation read because the full number of churches receives the applications of these seven prophecies. Each church is full of justified-but-sinful people. Each church faces the same problems as the others to which Christ alone is the only solution. Therefore, each prophecy begins with an aspect of Christ’s person and work. Step One: It’s all about Jesus!

This prophecy begins: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last [Isa. 44:6], who died and came to life.[6] Jesus is before the beginning (Jn. 1:1) and shall be at the end of these Last Days. He knows the beginning from the end; he knows all things because he has decreed all things, governing absolutely everything in the universe – including the persecution of his people. He swallowed up death and lives forevermore. Every description of himself Christ gives to these seven churches is a statement of his absolute sufficiency for their situations.

To a suffering congregation some of whom are about to experience imprisonments and death, Jesus speaks as the Master of all circumstances who is himself the Great Martyr, the witness unto death who rose again and ascended into glory. But this prophecy is not a condolence letter.[7] We might send sympathy cards to grieving friends saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sending you good thoughts and lots of positive energy.” But Jesus doesn’t dictate a message of condolence. Why? Because Jesus said (Matt. 16:24-26):

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?[8]

Jesus counts his people worthy to suffer for his name’s sake. And in the early church, his people rejoiced to suffer in a way the modern Western church would be completely disillusioned to experience; we think “victory” is achieving our economic and political and social goals. We think it horrifying that Christians in some distant country have been counted worthy by Jesus to suffer for his name’s sake. We want to send them a condolence card because we don’t understand what true victory looks like in God’s right-side-up Kingdom. We look on in horror at what we see as a “loss” while Jesus places the victory wreath upon their heads.

I’m NOT trying to give you holy guilt over the fact that the sovereign Lord has placed you in a free country where you don’t risk your life to follow him. But, I AM trying to reorient our thinking to God’s right-side-up point of view. The Lord Jesus experienced suffering on his way to glory. This prophecy to Smyrna teaches something about how to suffer for the sake of the gospel.  This is upside down from the victory now, health and wealth message of false teachers today!

The New Covenant writers constantly describe the privilege and joy of being found worthy to suffer for the sake of the gospel. In Acts 5, the early public ministry of the apostles resulted in their arrest, imprisonment, and beating. Luke writes in 5:41, “41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.[9] Right at the start of his apostolic ministry, the young John was beaten by the Jewish leadership for preaching Jesus. Now, he sits in exile on Patmos and he has yet to receive his condolence card from the Lord. The Kingdom of Christ is manifested on earth through suffering and perseverance because of its gospel proclamation. THAT is “victory” for God’s people!

Whenever God’s people are different from the world, the flesh, and the devil there will be persecution and suffering. The worst possible thing for the believers at Smyrna would have been to NOT be persecuted. Lack of persecution would have meant they were worshipping the demon gods of Rome, or blatantly rejecting Messiah Jesus in the synagogues. True believers will – somewhere, somehow, sometime – suffer dishonor for the name. You will feel the weight and pain of the cross Jesus commanded you to take up because that is what the Lord has decreed for all his people this side of eternity. He has decreed your upside-down victory.

NATURE OF SUFFERING

He tells us what is involved in suffering for Christ. It’s not simply the physical pain (though for some, 2:10, there will be imprisonment, torture, and death). Suffering will come in more subtle ways as well. Look at 2:9, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.[10] First, the Smyrna believers were impoverished. In the text, “tribulation and …poverty” are linked together. They were impoverished because of their testimony for Christ. They weren’t allowed to pursue education, to own businesses, to buy or sell in the marketplace. What possessions they had were subject to confiscation.

“The Jews were not forced to worship Caesar as a god, but allowed to offer sacrifices in honor of emperors as rulers and not as gods…. But after the Neronian persecution Christianity came under suspicion…. And Jews, who sometimes had no qualms in semi-revering other deities along with their OT God, often were only too willing to make the Roman authorities aware that the Christians were not a Jewish sect.”[11] Jews were allowed to look like pagans in every way but maintain a legalistic distinction that they were merely “honoring” other religions and government leaders when making pagan sacrifices – not really worshipping pagan gods as gods.

Jews could follow the principles of social standing in Roman culture. No doubt the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple played a role in encouraging them to look as much like the pagan culture as they could tolerate. Christians would not offer sacrifices to anyone or anything because Jesus had already sacrificed himself for them.

So, Christians were shut out of business and all social circles of society and disinherited by their pagan or Jewish families. In some way, faithfulness to Jesus will always bring worldly impoverishment rather than health and wealth. But in the upside-down Kingdom of God, Christ gives greater riches than anything the world can offer. God says to the poor, “but you are rich.”

Faith brought impoverishment. Second, faith brought pain – not constantly, but from time to time. Part of the pain for the Smyrnaen believers was the pain of slander. The Jews slandered the very idea that Messiah could be Galilean day-laborer crucified as a criminal. Only a social misfit would follow such a loser as an uneducated dead criminal. What kind of idiot would give up their chance at any normal happy life to associate with something so opposite of success and winning? Furthermore, they’re cannibals – claiming to eat the flesh and drink the blood of their dead rabbi.

One scholar notes, “the Jews’ attack against the Smyrnean [sic.] church was ironic in that it demonstrated that the Jews were not only ‘false Jews’ but also ‘a synagogue of Satan,’ and that the church, by implication, was the ‘true Israel.’ … the identification is confirmed not only by broad contextual indicators (e.g., 1:6, 7, 9, 12; 2:17; 3:9, 12; 5:9–10; 7:4–9, 15–17; 11:1–4) but also by the fact that in the immediate context the church is seen as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy [“do not fear,” Isa. 35:4; 41:13, etc. – 20 times] about Israel (see on 1:17; 2:10).”[12]

Paul says that “a man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly … [but] … a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly.” Whereas the Ephesians were troubled by self-styled apostles, the Smyrnaens are troubled by self-styled Israelites. Like the Jews of John 8:31–47 who claimed to be descendants of Abraham, they were, instead, of their father the devil.[13] The true Israel has always and only been those who look to the Promised Seed (Gen. 3:15) as their only hope for shalom with God.

Jesus issues a clever slap at the synagogue of Smyrna. He associates the Christian persecution there with the time of testing Daniel and his three friends underwent when they refused to eat meat sacrificed to Babylonian idols. After ten days on the Daniel diet, they were healthier than their pagan peers and considered to be “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.[14] (Dan. 1:8-16, 20). Those young men were true Israel; they refused to worship idols or kings.

Suffering can bring impoverishment; and, it can bring both physical and emotional pains. The third thing we learn about persecution is that it can go on for a long time. Symbolically, ten days is considered a long period in Revelation. Jesus tells the Smyrna church to be ready for a long period of suffering. Polycarp was martyred 59 years after first reading aloud the Revelation of Jesus Christ to his congregation. Jesus is telling his whole church in all ages to come until his return, suffering is a long-haul event. The theology of the cross according to Jesus is, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.[15]

RESPONSE TO SUFFERING

Since Jesus has overcome the world, what is our response to suffering – even imprisonment or death for Jesus’ sake? Here it is: “10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. …Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. … The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.[16] Jesus doesn’t gloss over suffering. He’s honest about it – it’s impoverishing, it’s painful, it comes and goes throughout our lives in this God-hating world. But in Christ, we all conquer. In Christ the hyper-conquering Lamb of God, we too are super-conquering sheep. Isn’t that totally upside down? To the world, victory is prettiness, fame, money, health, reputation, good food, fine wine, fast cars, tight abs, and getting our way. Losing is poverty, pain, being hated and death. It’s being associated with an uneducated Jewish criminal of questionable parentage – even to the point of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

In a city whose “crown” was a pagan temple on a hill, who loved the pageantry of athletic competition with its victory wreaths, who crowned the goddess Fortuna with laurels on their coins, nothing could be more foolish than following Jesus. The self-styled winners would face the second death of eternal judgment. But the first and the last, who died and came to life offers an upside-down crown to the ones who trust into his already-won, eternal victory. Nothing and no one can take away the upside-down crown he offers.

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; /we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [17]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:8–11.

[2] Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0102.htm>.

[3] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 73.

[4] Pausanius, 6.14.3.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smyrna; Mounce, op. cit.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:8.

[7] Ferguson, Smyrna: The Church that was Faithful, Rev. 2:8-11. https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-061707am

 

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 16:24–26.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ac 5:41.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:9.

[11] Beale, 240.

[12] Id., 241.

[13] Mounce, 75.

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Da 1:20.

[15] The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Jn 16:33.

[16] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:11.

[17] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Ro 8:31–39.