In his letter to the Christians in first-century Smyrna Jesus described the nature and extent of their suffering. It entailed at least four dimensions. First, they were in the throes of “tribulation” and “poverty” (Rev. 2:9). These are so inextricably linked in the experience of the Christians in Smyrna that I list them as one. Second, they were being slandered (2:9). Third, some of them were about to be imprisoned for their faith (2:10a). Fourth, some even faced martyrdom (2:10b). Continue reading...
In his letter to the Christians in first-century Smyrna Jesus described the nature and extent of their suffering. It entailed at least four dimensions. First, they were in the throes of “tribulation” and “poverty” (Rev. 2:9). These are so inextricably linked in the experience of the Christians in Smyrna that I list them as one. Second, they were being slandered (2:9). Third, some of them were about to be imprisoned for their faith (2:10a). Fourth, some even faced martyrdom (2:10b).
My immediate concern is with how the Smyrneans avoided disillusionment, or better still, how Jesus himself proposed that they remain faithful and utterly dependent on God. We know they resisted the temptation to fall into despair or bitterness, but how? Part of the answer is found in the opening words of Jesus in his letter to them. In particular, it’s found in how he is identified: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8).
This description of Jesus is taken from the portrayal of him in Revelation 1:18. But what possible difference could it make in their lives (or in ours) that Jesus is “the first and the last”? How does knowledge of that truth counteract the discombobulating effects of suffering? At first glance, knowing this about Jesus seems utterly irrelevant in the face of constant pain or financial loss or the breakdown of intimate relationships or, worst of all, the ominous prospect of physical death itself.
In fact, however, I suggest that nothing could more readily overcome disillusionment than knowledge of this truth. As I said earlier, suffering tends to bring disorientation to our hearts, a sense of being alone and lost and without a point of reference. Prolonged suffering breeds a feeling of chaos and loss of control. We ask: “Will I ever emerge from this dark tunnel? Is there an end in view? A purpose? Is there anything more ultimate than my own immediate discomfort that might enable me to persevere?”
Yes! In saying that he is the “first and the last” Jesus is affirming his comprehensive control over all of history, over every event that transpires within the parameters established by the terms “first” and “last.” As the one who is first, he is the source of all things. Nothing preceded him that might account for your suffering or suggest that it is outside the boundaries of his sovereign sway.
As the last he is the one toward whom all things are moving, the goal for which they exist, and the final explanation for all that is and occurs. They can look at their plight, feel their pain, calculate their losses, and still say: “But our Lord is the One who created it all, and he is the One for whom it is all being sustained and directed. My condition is not beyond the scope of his authority. He does have jurisdiction! Furthermore, if he is the ‘last’, if he is the one who stands as much on the back side of history as he did on the front end, then I know that what I’m enduring for his sake is not without purpose or fruit.”
The believers in Smyrna were themselves facing death. Martyrdom was a very real possibility (see Rev. 2:10). They needed to be reassured that physical death was nothing to fear, that it marked not the end but the beginning of true life, and that no matter how severe the suffering they would never taste the “second death” (2:11) that awaits those who deny Jesus.
In Revelation 2:10 he declares, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” This word of reassurance finds it basis in the fact that Jesus has conquered both sin and death. The believer need not fear either suffering or martyrdom, for Jesus has endured both and emerged victorious, and we are inseparably and eternally “in him”! Suffering is a given, an inescapable fact of life for the Christian. Its effects, on the other hand, are dependent on us. May God graciously energize our souls and enlighten our hearts that we, through the fog of anguish and disappointment, might see the light of his sovereignty, the one who is First and Last, who has died and come to life!