Friday, September 20, 2013

Don't Be Afraid

Do you know what command is found most frequently in Scripture?  “Fear not.”  It’s what God told Moses before he went to confront Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world.  It’s what Isaiah told king Hezekiah when an army hundreds of thousands strong was on its way to invade tiny Judah.  It’s what the angels said to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth.  And it’s what Jesus said to a church in modern-day Turkey 2000 years ago.  We’re studying the seven letters found in chapters two and three of Revelation because I believe that Jesus meant them to encourage and warn and instruct all of His churches until He returns.  As we get ready to celebrate 50 years of our church’s existence, and as we get ready to start some exciting new things, I think we need to see what these ageless letters have to say to us.

            This second letter (Rev. 2:8-11) was written to the church in the city of Smyrna. Smyrna was a large city, with over 200,000 inhabitants.   Smyrna was also a wealthy city, because it had a long history of loyalty to Rome.  Perhaps that’s why, during the lifetime of Jesus (23 AD), the Roman Senate voted to allow the Smyrnans to build a temple for the worship of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar.  Emperor worship was compulsory throughout the empire.  All you had to do is go once a year to one of these temples, burn a handful of incense and say “Caesar is Lord.”  For the average Roman citizen, this was no problem.  They believed in dozens of gods; why not add Caesar to the mix?  They thought of it more in patriotic than religious terms; for them, it was like pledging allegiance to the flag or taking one’s hat off when the national anthem was played.  But for the Smyrnan Christians, this was a huge fact of life.  Smyrna was proud of its status as an extremely patriotic city.  To have a small group of people who refused to pay homage to their emperor was intolerable. 
            Jesus mentions three things the Smyrnan Christians were going through.  First, He mentions “afflictions.”  That same word is translated “persecution” in v. 10.  Second, He mentions poverty.  Why would the Christians be poor in a city that had great wealth?  Because the Christians were seen as unpatriotic heretics, most of them couldn’t find work.  Third, he mentions slander from a “synagogue of Satan.”  Now, before you conclude that there is serious anti-Semitism going on here, remember that this is a letter dictated by Jesus, a Jew, and written down by John, a Jew.  Judaism was seen in many parts of the empire as a respected alternative religion, and therefore in many places, Jews received certain benefits.  They could, for instance, opt out of emperor worship without being prosecuted.  Some scholars believe that a group of Jews in Smyrna, jealous and hateful toward the Christians, were telling the government, “These people may have Jewish blood, but they’re not Jews.  You shouldn’t give them the same exception you give to us.”  That may be one of the ways they slandered the church.

              In view of all this, how could Jesus say, "Don't be afraid?"  And how does He expect us to respond to the things we fear most?  We'll explore these questions and others this Sunday.

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