Wednesday, December 3, 2014

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (Revelation Chapter 3)

Revelation 2:8-9, “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write…’I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich).’”

Revelation 3:14-17, “And to the angel of the church in Laodecia write…’For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked’.”

The city of Smyrna lay about 35 miles north of Ephesus on the east shore of the Aegean Sea.  In New Testament times it was populated by as many as 200,000 citizens.  Coins described the city as “First of Asia in beauty and size.”  The city sustained a special relationship to Rome and the imperial cult that ruled in that day.  The strong allegiance to Rome and a large Jewish population (that was actively hostile to the Christians) made it especially difficult to live as a Christian in the city.  Indeed, one of the early church fathers, Polycarp, was martyred in Smyrna—some decades after this message to the church—when he refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord.  The believers in Smyrna experienced both tribulation and poverty.  The two go hand in hand.  The antagonistic environment made it difficult for them to make a living.  Materially speaking, they were burdened and bankrupt.  But their situation did not escape the notice of “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8).  From His perspective, according to God’s economy of things, they were rich (Cf. James 2:5; Matthew 6:20; 2 Corinthians 6:10).

Laodecia was located in the Lycus valley at the juncture of two important trade routes.  In Roman times it became the wealthiest city in the region.  The fertile soil of the valley provided good grazing for sheep.  Careful breeding had worked to produce a valued black wool that was much in demand and brought fame and wealth to the region.  Agriculture and trade gave rise to a lucrative banking industry.  The city was also renowned for a medical school, which had worked to create certain ointments that were used to treat ear and eye ailments.  Laodecia’s major weakness, its lack of an adequate water supply, was resolved by the construction of an expensive aqueduct that brought water in from springs located some six miles away.  The imperial cult reigned in Laodecia as it did in Smyrna, but the church in Laodecia was apparently not troubled by it.  It was a compromising church and deemed itself prosperous, saying, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Revelation 3:17).  They were pridefully self-assured, but spiritually blind.  Like the emperor with no clothes they were embarrassingly unaware of their true condition.  Jesus strongly rebuked them, saying, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).  He exhorted them to buy from Him that which they lacked (i.e. gold, garments, and salve to anoint their eyes; Cf. Revelation 3:18).

The impoverished church in Smyrna was thought to be poor, but was not according to Jesus.  The prosperous church in Laodecia thought itself to be rich, but it was anything but wealthy.  If we are to judge things correctly we must view them from His perspective.  The biggest church in America is deemed wealthy by some.  It meets in an expensively remodeled basketball coliseum.  The pastor writes best-selling books and resides in a multi-million dollar home.  But you will find no cross hanging in the church building and hear no mention of Christ crucified from the pulpit.  The Risen Christ is not welcome there.  I know of a church that meets in a persecuted region.  They once rented a place to meet, but antagonistic neighbors stacked their garbage in the front of the entrance.  They tried again in another place, but then someone attempted to burn the building down.  Now they meet in a home.  They don’t have much, but they have Christ and His gospel and an irrepressible desire to make Him known.  I once heard the testimony of a pastor who was founding a church in a small village in the Masaka Region of Uganda.  We met at the site for prayer.  There were a few poles sticking up from the ground.  Accompanied by a few members of his church, he could hardly contain his excitement as he shared how God had worked, in overcoming demonic oppression and opposition, so that they could finally plant a church in the church-less village.  No one would sell property for a church, so he used his own.  That church had no building and little by way of resources, but they were rich in faith and love for Jesus.

There is a tendency in prosperity to rely on one’s wealth and fail to recognize the fact that we are all always needy (Cf. Proverbs 30:7-9; Luke 12:19; 1 Timothy 6:17).  Poverty and persecution have a way of working to remind us of our true condition before God.  In possessing Christ even the most impoverished amongst us is rich beyond measure (Cf. Ephesians 3:8).  Without Him, a person can possess great earthly riches, and yet be spiritually bankrupt (Cf. Matthew 16:26). 

No comments: