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.’"
What defines a successful church? In our culture today, as a wise pastor once told me, many people would answer this by saying “buildings, budgets, and butts in seats.” We are enamored with the big, exciting, and visually impressive. We love busyness, platforms, and big plans. As a high school minister, one of the first questions I am often asked by people who are interested in learning more about our ministry is, “How many students do you have coming each week?” or other numbers-based questions. Many authors have joined this interest, writing books about how a church can grow, or what are the keys to building and running a “successful” church. Our cultural values have infected the church in many ways.
Our passage today blows up that cultural definition of worldly success. If a person or family was “church shopping” in the ancient world, Smyrna Presbyterian Church would almost certainly not be the final choice. Cool new building? Nope. Huge budget? Known as a very poor church. Where all the people with high status in the community go? Actually a small group of believers in a city that threatened, opposed, and slandered them.
And yet the church in Smyrna was one of two (out of seven) churches that received only encouragement and no rebuke in the book of Revelation (Philadelphia was the other one). Smyrna was a beautiful harbor city that was wealthy and had a population of about 100,000. Some ancient historians indicate strong Jewish persecution of Christians in Smyrna (including Polycarp, who was martyred in Smyrna in AD 168 and whose death was assisted by Jews who gathered wood for the fire in which he was burned). According to verses 9-10, this church was experiencing slander and opposition, and many of its people would soon face prison and even persecution “unto death.” In verse 9, it is stated that this church was physically poor. And yet, in parentheses in verse 9 we see four crucial words that shape the entire letter to the church in Smyrna: “But you are rich.”
How is it possible for Jesus to say this to a church that was physically poor and experiencing persecution in a way that continued to threaten its people’s financial income? Because even though they were materially poor, they were spiritually rich. The church in Smyrna had a relationship with the eternal God who sent Jesus to die and come back to life (v. 8). That same Savior intimately saw them and was sovereign over everything they were experiencing. They would live with Him forever in fullness of joy, which they are doing right now (Psalm 16:11). In other words, they had true riches, riches that could never be taken away from them, because they had a relationship with the One who is so gracious that, “though He was rich, became poor for our sake, so that by His poverty we might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
The church in Smyrna was not “successful” because of its size, wealth, or popularity. In fact, the only churches in the book of Revelation to receive only a commendation without a rebuke are the poorest (Smyrna) and the smallest (Philadelphia). It is important to note that this does not mean that these things in themselves indicate success or that size and material resources necessarily indicate failure. However, it does mean that size and material resources do not equal success for a church, but those are the types of criteria our culture typically uses to evaluate a church. On the other hand, this church was faithful to Jesus and the Gospel, even at the cost of great material loss. Jesus calls them spiritually rich. In possessing nothing, they actually possessed everything.
This reminds me of some friends in West Africa who faithfully follow Jesus and love their neighbors, while 96% of people in their country are not Christians. PCPC High School has had the opportunity to visit and partner with these brothers and sisters in Christ over the past two summers, and I have been deeply impacted and inspired by their simple faithfulness to the Gospel. They treasure Jesus, and the overflow of that is love for their neighbors and a passion to tell them about the eternal hope and joy they have. While they don’t have many resources and often make great personal sacrifices, they demonstrate that Jesus is enough and that at its core, the church is called to be a Gospel-proclaiming, Gospel-shaped community. The results are in Jesus’ hands. A successful church is simply a Jesus-centered church.
So, what does it mean to succeed? Ian Duguid writes:
Human beings are remarkably poor judges of success and failure. On the one hand, we often use the wrong measuring sticks. The people whom we judge as ‘successful’—the rich, the powerful, the influential, and the attractive—receive no special adulation in God’s Kingdom. Meanwhile, those we look down on as failures—the poor, the broken, and the unimportant people—are often those for whom it seems God has a special concern. According to Jesus, it is possible to gain the whole world—to succeed against almost every human yardstick—and still fail at life because you lose your soul in the process (Matthew 16:26). At the same time, Jesus declares that it is possible to lose all your possessions, relationships, and status, and yet succeed in what really matters—in your relationship with God (Mark 10:28–30)…My only hope and boast rest not in my faithfulness but in the fact that whether I am rich or poor, prominent or obscure, weak or strong, my faithful Savior has loved me and given Himself for me.
When we realize that Jesus was successful and strong for us, we begin to lose our desire for the pursuit of worldly success. We are free to let Him be our all in our weakness and failure. A church in which Jesus is everything is a church the world needs.