“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of 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. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
(Revelation 2:8–11 NIV)
If you were given the choice to be either rich or poor, for must of us it would not be a difficult choice. In general we would agree that being rich is better than being poor. There is truth in that but it is much more complicated than that simple statement. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples. One of the people currently in the news is actor Charlie Sheen. Sheen would seem to have all anyone would want. He has fame and fortune. Son of well known actor Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen has been successful in both comedy and drama roles. Charlie Sheen is actually in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest paid television actor at $1.25 million per episode. Despite all of that wealth, Sheen’s relationships have been broken, he has children removed from his home, his television series has been cancelled, he is wracked with drug addiction and he has become the laughing stock of Hollywood. Another name currently in the news is Muammar Gaddafi. He too seemed to have all one would want. Gaddafi relinquished the title of prime minister, he has been accorded the honorific “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” (or more concisely as “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution”) in government statements and the official press. With the death of Omar Bongo of Gabon on 8 June 2009, he became the longest serving of all current non-royal national leaders and he is one of the longest serving rulers in history. He is also the longest-serving ruler of Libya since the country became an Ottoman province in 1551. Gaddafi is alleged to have amassed a multi-billion fortune for himself and his family. Gaddafi actually rose to power just a few years after graduating from military school. Gaddafi would seem to have it all. An yet now his country has risen up against him. His palace has been destroyed by an angry mob and even his military and political leaders are turning against him. Two people who have had more money and power than we could ever imagine and yet their lives are a mess. It challenges what it means to be rich or to be poor.
Wealth is measured by the context that you live in. You can take someone living under the poverty level in the west and place them in another part of the world and suddenly they would be rich. The passage that we are looking at today is about the church in Smyrna. The city of Smyrna was rich in a number of ways. It was a financially affluent as there was much trade and commerce that passed through their harbor. They were rich culturally as Smyrna was the birth place of Homer, the Shakespeare of the ancient world. Smyrna was rich politically as they supported Rome before they were a major power, were the first to have a temple to Roma, the goddess of personified Rome, and they were the first to have a temple to worship one of the Roman emperors. Smyrna was rich religiously in that its gods had magnificent temples. Contrast this with the church at Smyrna. They would have had no building but their small homes. They were not very rich, probably having cut many financial ties by their conversion to Christ. They were on the bad side of Rome because they refused to burn a pinch of incense and declare caesar as lord. The Christians would seem very poor. Jesus acknowledges this but at the same time declares them to be rich. They are rich in faith. Jesus sees that they are slandered and persecuted and yet they remain strong. The faith in Christ that makes that happen is richer than any full wallet. Jesus reminds them that they have wealth in eternal life. The Roman empire would one day fall, the temples to the gods would crumble, bank accounts would be left behind at death. But the Christians at Smyrna were rich in life, they had the hope that death could not ultimately defeat them. Their physical bodies might die, but they would continue on past death and when they stood before God, they had no reason to fear. The church at Smyrna is one of only two of the seven churches that had a completely good report from Jesus. It sounds like they were quite rich after all.
Are we rich or poor? Well we live in a rich culture. Our culture is technologically rich. Medical knowledge is great. There is a high standard of living. We sponsor a girl overseas and we were told not to send pictures taken indoors as pictures of the things we own would be discouraging to those poor in other areas. We live in a rich land. But are we rich as Christians? There are some things we are poor in. There are ways in which we could end up financially poorer, since we can not lie, cheat or steal. We could be poor in freedom. People of other traditions and faiths are invited to share their beliefs because that is being multi-cultural. When we share, we are just being intolerant and offensive. We may be poorer in terms of respect. People may look down on us because of our beliefs. They may think we are foolish or superstitious or irrational. Being a Christian in the west is not near as respectable as it once was. As Christians, we may not feel particularly rich. But we are rich. We have a relationship with God. The creator of the universe has adopted us into his family. We are not just servants or worshippers (although we are that too), but we are sons and daughters of God and co-heirs with Christ. We have the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God, inspired revelation of how to be right with God and what God wants for our life. We have Christian fellowship. God’s plan was for the church, a group of people together following Jesus. We are never alone, we can always support one another. We have forgiveness of sins. We all have our problems and weaknesses. We do what we do not want to do and do not do what we want to do. Yet because of what Jesus did on the cross, we can have forgiveness of sins. We have eternal life. The one thing that we all know is that we will all die. Within forty years, most of us will be in the grave. For some that could lead to hopelessness. Yet we have the hope of eternal life, that we can spend eternity in God’s presence without fear of death or sorrow. When we think of all of these things, we should be encouraged that from the proper perspective, we are filthy rich.
When you are looking at a letter, it is worth looking at how the author describes them self. Jesus in this letter described himself as the one who died and came to life again. This is important. Jesus is saying that he has experienced what it is like when appearances are deceiving. When Jesus was taking his last breath on the cross, it was looking very grim. People would wag their heads and pity such a man. But this was part of God’s plan to reconcile us to him and Jesus was to rise again. In the same way, there may be circumstances in our life that seem to suggest that we are poor. We may experience poverty financially, socially, emotionally, educationally and so on. But when we take a look at the things that we truly have in Christ, we can discover that we are in fact incredibly wealthy. When you wake up in the morning, do not dwell on the things that you do not have, but say a prayer of thanks that being poor you are yet rich.