11) Sustained by his Sovereignty (Revelation 2:8)
Suffering comes in many forms and in varying degrees, as the Christians in Smyrna would no doubt testify. But regardless of how it manifests itself, suffering tends to evoke one of two reactions in the soul of the Christian: dependency or disillusionment.
One example of the former is found in the apostle Paul’s reaction to a life-threatening incident that brought him to the brink of despair. Rather than yielding to disillusionment with God he was driven to dependency upon Him. The entire scenario, he later said, was “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
For many, however, disillusionment triumphs over dependency, often leading to a crippling bitterness that threatens both our enjoyment in life and our effectiveness in ministry (in using the word “ministry” I have in mind all believers here, not simply those we often call “clergy”).
The reason for this, at least in part, is that suffering has a disorienting effect on the soul. What I mean is that pain, whether physical or emotional or both, contributes to a loss of perspective. We can see little else but the problem and its disruptive impact on every sphere of life. We feel lost and directionless, not knowing how to extricate ourselves from the mess we’re in. There’s no spiritual compass, so to speak, that points us to God and perhaps to some explanation for why we have to endure such unspeakable hurt.
This is why many who suffer experience deep disillusionment with God. “Doesn’t he know what is happening? Doesn’t he care? And if he does, why doesn’t he do something about it? Maybe he’s simply too busy or too weak.” In any case, they feel lost at sea, adrift and carried hopelessly beyond the safety of the shore by wave after wave of disappointment and pain and shattered dreams and loss of friends and, well, whatever else it is that simply won’t go away. To make sense of what is happening we need a point of reference, a “north star”, as it were, to guide us back home and restore a measure of hope.
So how did Paul spiritually survive the “affliction” he “experienced in Asia” (2 Corinthians 1:8)? Or better still, how did the Smyrnean Christians pull through given all they were facing?
I’ll return to the nature and extent of their suffering in the next meditation, but it surely entailed at least four dimensions. First, they were in the throes of “tribulation” and “poverty” (Revelation 2:9). These are so inextricably linked in the experience of the Christians in Smyrna that I list them as one. Again, more on the nature of this in the next lesson. Second, they were being slandered (2:9). Third, some of them were about to be imprisoned for their faith (2:10a). And fourth, some would even face martyrdom (2:10b).
My immediate concern is with how the Smyrneans avoided disillusionment, or better still, how Jesus himself proposed that they remain faithful and utterly dependent on God. We know they resisted the temptation to fall into despair or bitterness, but how? I suggest that at least part of the answer is found in the opening words of Jesus in his letter to them. In particular, it’s found in how he is identified: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8).
This description of Jesus is actually taken from the portrayal of him in chapter one. There John is granted a vision of the risen and glorified Lord, where Jesus himself declares: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).
So what possible difference could it make in their lives (or in ours) that Jesus is “the first and the last”? How does knowledge of that truth counteract the discombobulating effects of suffering? At first glance, knowing this about Jesus seems utterly irrelevant in the face of constant pain or financial loss or the breakdown of intimate relationships or, worst of all, the ominous prospect of physical death itself.
In fact, however, I suggest that nothing could more readily overcome disillusionment than knowledge of this truth. As I said earlier, suffering tends to bring disorientation to our hearts, a sense of being alone and lost and without a point of reference. Prolonged suffering breeds a feeling of chaos and loss of control. We ask: “Will I ever emerge from this dark tunnel? Is there an end in view? A purpose? Is there anything more ultimate than my own immediate discomfort that might enable me to persevere?”
Yes! In saying that he is the “first and the last” Jesus is affirming his comprehensive control over all of history, over every event that transpires within the parameters established by the terms “first” and “last.” As the one who is first, he is the source of all things. Nothing preceded him that might account for your suffering or suggest that it is outside the boundaries of his sovereign sway.
As the “last” he is the one toward whom all things are moving, the goal for which they exist, and the final explanation for all that is and occurs. They can look at their plight, feel their pain, calculate their losses, and still say: “But our Lord is the One who created it all, and he is the One for whom it is all being sustained and directed. My condition is not beyond the scope of his authority. He does have jurisdiction! Furthermore, if he is the ‘last’, if he is the one who stands as much on the back side of history as he did on the front end, then I know that what I’m enduring for his sake is not without purpose or fruit.”
And what of the statement that he “died and came to life” (2:8)? A few have suggested that the people of Smyrna would have especially appreciated this description of Jesus because of the city’s own history. Smyrna was destroyed by the Lydians in 600 b.c., followed by three centuries of relative desolation until it was reestablished and rebuilt two miles south of the ancient site in 290 b.c. Well, maybe, but I think something else is involved that would prove even more significant to the suffering saints in that city.
Remember, they themselves were facing death. Martyrdom was a very real possibility (see Revelation 2:10). They needed to be reassured that physical death was nothing to fear, that it marked not the end but the beginning of true life, and that no matter how severe the suffering they would never taste the “second death” (2:11) that awaits those who deny Jesus.
“Fear not,” said Jesus to John in Revelation 1:17. Again, in 2:19 he declares, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” This word of reassurance finds it basis in the fact that Jesus has conquered both sin and death. The believer need not fear either suffering or martyrdom, for Jesus has endured both and emerged victorious, and we are inseparably and eternally “in him”!
Suffering is a given, an inescapable fact of life for the Christian. Its effects, on the other hand, are dependent on us. May God graciously energize our souls and enlighten our hearts that we, through the fog of anguish and disappointment, might see the light of his sovereignty, the one who is First and Last, who has died and come to life!