12) Having Nothing, yet Possessing All (Revelation 2:9-10)
As I sit writing this meditation, I need only turn my head slightly to the left and gaze out the window of my hotel room for a stunning view of the Washington Monument in our nation’s capital. Two days earlier, on my way from the airport to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was deeply moved by the site of the Lincoln Memorial, and later that night by the stunning profile of the Capitol building.
People react differently when visiting Washington, D.C. I have to confess that for a moment I found it all a bit disheartening, especially in view of the recent elections. But that was short-lived, for my mind was fixed on the Christians who lived, not in D.C., but in ancient Smyrna. Those saints, whom Jesus commends here in Revelation 2:8-11, knew nothing of what I know. The freedoms and opportunities and legal protection under which I live and minister and so often sinfully take for granted were unknown to those believers. What they faced in first-century Smyrna was as radically far-removed from what I now enjoy as one can possibly conceive.
I’ve already mentioned the suffering they experienced and its profoundly sanctifying results, but the time has come to look closely at precisely what they endured. Again, it’s difficult for me to grasp what they awakened to each day. I’ve never known anything remotely similar, nor feared for my life, property, or family. That’s due in large measure to the principles on which our country was founded, of which I was reminded by those buildings and structures in this remarkable city. But it doesn’t prevent me from asking of my soul: “Sam, how would you have fared in Smyrna? Would Jesus have found anything commendable in your response to state-sponsored persecution? What if the power and authority of Washington, D.C., were turned against you and your commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Jesus singles out four dimensions of the suffering endured by the Smyrneans. Let’s look briefly at each, not out of academic curiosity, but in order to ask ourselves: “Is my faith such that it would survive, indeed thrive, under such threats?”
First, reference is made in Revelation 2:9a to their “tribulation” and “poverty”. But why were these believers “poor” in a city as prosperous as Smyrna? Perhaps they were from the lower ranks of society, economically speaking. It’s possible they had exceeded their means in generous giving to others. But this would not explain why their poverty is part of their tribulation, and the association of the two words here indicates they are linked.
In some measure the poverty was due to their voluntary exclusion from the many trade guilds in Smyrna, seedbeds of vice, immorality, and unscrupulous business dealings. In addition, they probably struggled to find employment precisely because they were Christians. Most likely, however, as Hebrews 10:34 indicates, their homes and property had been looted and pillaged. As John Stott says, “make no mistake: it does not always pay to be a Christian. Nor is honesty by any means always the best policy, if material gain is your ambition” (39).
Material gain was most assuredly not the ambition of the Smyrneans! I’m confident that, like those believers in Hebrews 10, they “joyfully accepted the plundering” of their “property,” knowing that they “had a better possession and an abiding one” (v. 34). In the case of the Christians at Smyrna, they had “riches” their enemies couldn’t understand, “wealth” that couldn’t be stolen, “possessions” that weren’t vulnerable to theft or rust or devaluation or falling stock prices. Indeed, despite their material poverty, Jesus declares that they are “rich” (Rev. 2:9).
Is this some sort of joke? Is Jesus toying with them? Hardly, for Paul said it best when he described himself and those who ministered at his side as “poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Did not James declare that God has “chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5)?
Perhaps we should pause quietly and ask ourselves, “How do I measure real wealth? Is the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ of sufficient value that I regard myself as incomparably rich though I own little? Were I to lose everything but him, would I still consider myself blessed?”
Second, they were repeatedly slandered (v. 9a). Jesus doesn’t specify the nature of this slander (lit., blasphemy), but I assume it included attacks on their character, mockery of their beliefs (“You put your trust in a crucified carpenter! Ha!”), and most of all hateful indignities heaped on their Lord.
Third, we read that some of them would be thrown into “prison” (v. 10). We must remember that imprisonment in Roman communities like Smyrna wasn’t technically considered a punishment. Prisons were used for one of three reasons: (1) to compel and coerce obedience to the order of a magistrate; (2) to keep the accused confined pending the trial date; or (3) to detain the guilty until the time of execution. The words “until death” (v. 10b) indicate that the third is in view.
There are several options to interpreting the meaning of “ten days” of “tribulation”. Some say it means literally ten days and leave it at that. Another view is that it simply refers to a short period of time, while others suggest that it points to extreme or complete tribulation. Greg Beale points to Daniel 1:12-15 where the “testing” of Daniel and his three friends is said to be for “ten days”. Colin Hemer contends that “the ‘ten days’ should probably be seen as a limited, intermediate period of suffering, expected to terminate in judgment and death, -- but this for the Christian was victory and life, assured by the precedent of Christ’s resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20)” (70).
Fourth, they were facing martyrdom itself. There’s simply no escaping the fact that some of them would die. Yet Jesus does nothing to prevent it. He doesn’t alleviate their poverty nor publicly vindicate his people in the face of those who hurled their indignant slander. And when Satan moves to incite their imprisonment and eventual execution he chooses not to intervene. There are certainly numerous instances in biblical days and in the history of the church when it was otherwise (see Hebrews 11:32-34). But not always (see Hebrews 11:35-38).
I’ve already addressed the issue, if only briefly, about why Christians suffer. But perhaps when we encounter such texts our question should be of a different sort. Instead of asking, “Why do Christians suffer persecution?” we ought to inquire, “Why do Christians not suffer persecution?” John Stott put it pointedly: “The ugly truth is that we tend to avoid suffering by compromise. Our moral standards are often not noticeably higher than the standards of the world. Our lives do not challenge and rebuke unbelievers by their integrity or purity or love. The world sees in us nothing to hate” (43).
It’s evening now, and the Washington Monument stands well lit against a darkened sky, a forceful reminder that, at least for now, the church is free to flourish in America. But that could change. I honestly don’t worry much about it. I’m more concerned about whether in the face of “tribulation” and “poverty” I would consider myself “rich”.
Kind David declared, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you” (Psalm 16:2). Do you agree? Are other things “good” only because we have them from him and for his sake? I hope so. And if we lack such things, is he alone “good” enough that we regard ourselves as “possessing everything”? The Smyrneans did.