“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.“ ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” -Revelation 2:8-11
In the movie, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Jedi Master Yoda recounts the ancient Jedi teaching before a fearful Anakin, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Even in secular culture, we recognize cause-and-effect patterns which begin with something small, leading to a domino effect of increasingly more dire actions and reactions. Biblical teaching also recognizes this pattern. We call it sin, but sin can begin with something that, from our perspective, seems very small and almost inconsequential. We are easily lulled into this false sense of security.
As we saw last time, in the letter to the Church in Ephesus, Jesus called the Ephesians to account for their lack of love, specifically their abandonment of their first love. Now, in this letter to the Church in Smyrna, He calls them to account for their fear. Yoda got it wrong. Fear is not the beginning of a forehead-first, downward spiral into unchecked sin and suffering; abandoning love is.
At the root of all behavior lies one of two major driving forces or motivators. They determine and guide every action ever taken by every member of the human race. These two forces are difficult to encapsulate and define, but we can see their effects all around us. They are called, simply enough, love and fear.
Take any action, word, or dead, whether good or bad, and you can always tie it back to one of these two. Either love or fear compels you to do some of the crazier things human beings do. Love and fear are more potent than any other driving force. Fear leads to many different motivations such as greed and hatred. Fear of the lack of provision manifests in greed. Fear of not being in control, of not being God yourself, leads to a hatred of others we see as competing “gods.” Fear of the unknown, of the “other” who is different from you, leads to selfishness, self-preservation, bigotry, racism, and discrimination. All of these are diametrically opposed to love.
Love on the other hand is the driving force behind compassion, mercy, and self-sacrifice. It is fear, too, of being found to be in need of these (compassion, forgiveness, or another’s self-sacrifice) that leads us to pride, resentment, or even hatred of those who offer us a hand in love. Love compels us to lay down our lives, our needs, our self-service, yet fear drives us to horde and violently defend all our selfish, personal interests at the cost of all those around us.
This is not mere psychology. This what Scripture teaches. Where we lack love, we poor, miserable, sinful creatures are driven by a great fear that overtakes us, pushing us to act out and react in irrational, even stupid ways. Though fear’s intentions are those of self-preservation, it is a mindless, unreasonable, self-deception that is ultimately destroyed in its own racket. Fear is unsustainable. It is an odd and self-defeating force, though this is precisely what it is trying to avoid.
That is why Jesus, in these first two letters, does not attempt to convince the Ephesians or Smyrnians with a well-reasoned argument about why they should choose love over fear. Left to our own devices, left in unbelief, we will always pick fear over love. Because at the root of fear is unbelief; but to act in love, that requires faith.
Instead of telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and simply behave in a loving way, Jesus overturns their unbelief (the root of fear) by calling a thing what it is; abandonment of love (in the letter to Ephesus), and giving into fear (in the letter to Smyrna). He calls them to repent of their sin and unbelief, placing their faith and trust in His perfect love for them, not in their imperfect inability to love. He directs them to love, but not to their love first. He first directs them to His love for them.
Jesus' perfect love will sustain them in the midst of whatever horrors they will face. And they have many atrocities which they will soon meet and which they could react in fear toward. Jesus tells them point blank, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death,” but follows that with the promise, “and I will give you the crown of life.”
But this “crown of life” is already theirs. Jesus isn’t telling them to win it, but that He has already won it. He is their way, their truth, and their very life. And if He is their life, and He has already won, then there is nothing that can harm them; not defeat, nor tribulation, nor poverty, nor slander; not even death. These things which they possibly could fear have no consequence for those who have already died and are now alive in Christ. For their lives are most certainly hidden and are perfectly safe in Christ.
Jesus isn’t making a compelling argument in an attempt to persuade them this might be a truth they should seriously consider. He is proclaiming to them the truth of the reality in which they already live. He destroys unbelief by the power of His faith-giving Word of Promise. Suddenly, they are brought into a new reality where His love for them produces a new and revolutionary driving force of love in them.
Again, just as we saw in the last letter, here in the letter to Smyrna, Jesus attaches a promise to the one who conquers. And still, it is the same conquering comprehended in, and already accomplished through this gifted faith. Our faith does not win the victory, it trusts that the victory is already won in Christ (1 John 5:4-5; 1 Cor 15:57; Rom 8:37). Faith delivers those who are conquered by sin, death, and the devil from the defeat of unbelief, to the victory of the gifts of forgiveness, life, and freedom that are in Christ alone.
Jesus doesn’t tell them to decide to stop believing in a secular worldview and to choose Him. He transfers them from the dominion of Satan’s lies into the Kingdom of His glorious light—the new reality of their lives as He sees them alive in Him—lives hidden and safely preserved in Christ. Jesus preaches them into the kingdom by announcing to them that this is already their reality. He is their Victory; their Way, their Truth, and their Life!
In Christ, the Christian’s anthem is not, “They knock me down, but I get up again. Ain’t nobody gonna keep me down.” Our ballad does not contain the lyric, “It’s not about the fall, but about getting up again.” Instead, our song, Christ’s song sung over us, is the same creative song sung over us in Christ and repeated by us in the faith received in baptism:
God’s own child, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ!
He, because I could not pay it, gave my full redemption price.
Do I need earth’s treasures many? I have one worth more than any
That brought me salvation free, Lasting to eternity!
Sin, disturb my soul no longer: I am baptized into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger: Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me, since my baptism did release me
In a dear forgiving flood, sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood?
Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation; I am not so soon enticed.
Now that to the font I’ve traveled, all your might has come unraveled,
And, against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me!
Death, you cannot end my gladness: I am baptized into Christ!
When I die, I leave all sadness to inherit paradise!
Though I lie in dust and ashes, faith’s assurance brightly flashes:
Baptism has the strength divine to make life immortal mine.
There is nothing worth comparing to this lifelong comfort sure!
Open-eyed my grave is staring: Even there I’ll sleep secure.
Though my flesh awaits its raising, still my soul continues praising:
I am baptized into Christ; I’m a child of paradise!