Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Letter to the Struggling Church, Part II

In his letter to the Angel of the church in Smyrna within the Apocalypse, the Lord Jesus Christ comforts a body of believers that are getting it handed to them on three fronts. They are suffering tribulation and poverty, they are suffering human opposition and persecution, and they are being acted against by the Devil himself. Rather than any of those conditions being used as evidence that the church needed correction, rebuke, or instructions about getting it right, Christ speaks empathetically concerning them with encouragement. A similar observation could be made in the case of the church in Philadelphia.

Apparently being a suffering, struggling church was not a mark of disfavor or disobedience.

Jesus' approach strikes a discordant note with much of what is offered as appropriate church evaluation today. Now, when finance, influence and size of constituency mean so much, churches are measured on the scales of name recognition, market infiltration, traffic through the door, and cash flow. Is it possible that we are judging church differently critically than does Christ? We would have no trouble saying no if this modern approach actually made disciples, but then, has anyone ever had a felt need for repentance!

The church in Smyrna was experiencing tribulation--the situation of being between a rock and a hard place without viable alternatives. They were in poverty as well. The combination of being without and having no way out is very distressing indeed. Perhaps we hope that such a condition would never be visited upon faithful Christians, but that is exactly the condition these faithful Christians were in. Christ was fully aware of it, and yet he neither rebuked them for being in it nor promised them that he would alter it.

The church in Smyrna was subjected to blasphemy from those who said they were Jews but were not. It seems to me that this blasphemy would have been twofold: folk were reviling Christ, and they were reviling those in Christ. I don't like being subjected to abusive language, and it makes me cringe when I hear some one so much as using the Lord's name in vain, so it is evident to me that more than sticks and stones can cause injury. That the source was Jews not believing in their own messiah puts me in mind of the some of the rot that comes out of Sam Harris or Sigmund Freud.

The church in Smyrna was about to be attacked by the Devil himself. Whether or not the Devil was going to use physical prison or spiritual prison is hard to tell. Christians have been thrown in jail at times, that much has precedent in history--was it the Devil? Maybe. Could the Devil spiritually hem Christians in and set "guards" on them? I think so. Regardless, Jesus' counsel was to not fear what was about to be suffered. That may be easier said than done, but it is the necessity of faith, even today.

There is much speculation about the nature of the 10 days tribulation. The suggestion that it refers to Polycarp and a long since elapsed historical period is much bantied about. Even though periods of time throughout the Apocalypse tend to be literal (according to my interpretation), the seven churches are representative and symbolic. Therefore, all that this needs to be understood as communicating is that at some point, churches like that in Smyrna are bound to experience momentary, intense periods (ten days) of oppression instigated by the Devil.

What does a suffering church need to know? Well, beyond not interpreting their suffering as the disfavor of Christ or the misapplication of methodology, the suffering, struggling church must recognize that enduring suffering is part of being faithful to Christ. There is a crown of life awaiting for those who do endure, so be faithful unto death. Those who overcome will be eternally blessed.

Part I


bethyada said...

They are suffering tribulation and poverty, they are suffering human opposition and persecution, and they are being acted against by the Devil himself.

They face the evil of the world, the evil of man, the evil of the spiritual world; or as James may say: earthly, carnal, demonic. (James 3:15)

SLW said...

Interesting connection, bethyada, it never dawned on me to make it. Of course, that really generalizes the Smyrnean experience to that of all faithful Christians, and thereby broadens its application. That is probably a very good thing, because I think a lot of Christians think there is little in the Apocalypse that is practical and relevant to them, and miss out on the beautiful depth and breadth of the prophecy.