Been there. Done that. (October 20, 2019)
Been there. Done that.
When you want to learn how to do something well, you turn to those who have been there, done that. Those who have experience doing the same thing, and are good at it. So, needless to say, I was really excited and looking forward to attending the TNT Gathering this past week. The TNT Gathering is a gathering for every pastor in our Texas and Oklahoma district who is actively starting a new mission congregation. I was looking forward to talking to seasoned veterans, getting great ideas, and being encouraged all along. And all that did happen! I came back on Tuesday with advice, direction, contacts, and enthusiasm. But there’s also the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with all of that. As missionaries were presenting on their exciting work, there was also despair as I thought to myself, “I should be doing more of that.” And envy as I thought, “I wish I had that available.” Or “My work didn’t produce those kind of results.”
It’s all a bit daunting. And I know the experience isn’t exclusive to pastors and missionaries. Throughout school you’ve got your eyes on different people, longing to develop the skills they have. Throughout your career there are disappointments as you work hard for something and see it go to someone else. In retirement there are regrets as things didn’t turn out how you had hoped. And aside from those things, there is the hurt that comes and goes at any stage of life: Relationship strains, the spiritual darkness of the world around you, and your own failures haunting you. There are times when you feel alone, helpless, worthless, like an underdog.
That was the Christians in Smyrna. It was a thriving city for all but the Christians living there. We aren’t told exactly why. It could have been that the Romans imprisoned them and confiscated their property for refusing to worship the emperor. Emperor worship was a real thing. It could have been that they suffered local persecution and economic discrimination as their own townsmen refused to buy their goods and services. And in the midst of troubles like these, heartache and personal struggles, we often wonder, “does anyone care?” “Does God care about me?” “Does he even know what I’m going through?” You just want a moment to dump all of this on someone – just to have them listen, just to have them understand, just to have them know.
Jesus answers you right here in this letter. “I know” (Rev 2:9), he says. “I know your afflictions and your poverty” (Rev 2:9). And understand what he means by that. In Greek, there are two different words for “I know”. The one is more of knowledge and information. Learning something and knowing about it. The other is more of understanding. It’s knowing completely – how it feels, why it is, how it relates to your life and the intricacies of it. That’s the word here. Jesus knows your affliction so intimately that it’s like he is experiencing it himself right along side you. So, lay it on him. Lay it all out there. Sometimes I’m hesitant to do that. Like, I don’t want to offend God with what I say. I’m jealous of what someone else has. I’m disappointed that I haven’t been given those gifts or that level of success. And I know these thoughts are wrong, so I don’t want to tell them to God in prayer…. He knows. He knows it completely. And you wouldn’t be the first to lay some complaints, confessions, and struggles on God. In fact, some complaining prayers are recorded right there in the Bible for all to read. Lamentations is almost all one big complaint from Jeremiah. Jesus says to you, “I know your afflictions and your poverty” (Rev 2:9). I know it completely. So, unburden your heart and lay it on me in prayer. Because I care.
And then, he immediately follows it up by redirecting your focus on the true reality of what’s going on. “I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!” (Rev 2:9). And if you were living in Smyrna, you’d be thinking, “Uh…. No I’m not.” It almost seems like a trite statement. Like a bandaid that’s just thrown out there to try to cover it up. “I’m poor.” “No you’re not.” “I’m hurt.” “No you’re not.” “I’m struggling.” “No you’re not.” Come on, Lord, do you even care?! I assure you, he does. More than you realize and more than you can know. This isn’t just a statement to take your eyes off of the wound to numb the pain and make you forget. Jesus is actually refocusing your life on the big thing that really matters.
Look at the beginning of the letter. Realize who is talking to you. “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (Rev 2:8). He’s been there, done that. Lived a life here on this earth and experienced all of it – even the worst of it. He’s been ignored, rejected, betrayed, falsely accused, and crucified. He’s been through life on earth and out the other side. He knows your afflictions and cares about them. But also refocuses you on what is truly important in life. And if anyone can give that kind of advice, it’s the one who died and came to life again.
So, let Jesus show you why you are truly rich. Read his words in the gospel reading (Lk 16:19-31). Between the rich man and poor Lazarus, it was Lazarus who was truly rich. Because he had the one thing that death could not take. He had the one thing that the destruction on the last day could not destroy. He had the one thing in life that truly meant a life worth living. And that was his faith in Jesus. Death couldn’t take Jesus from him. His last day only brought him closer to Jesus. And knowing Jesus, he had everything for the rest of eternity. Put into perspective, he had a sliver of tough time, on an eternal timeline of peace, joy, and true value. Refocus your life on the riches you have in heaven. Yes, they seem distant, but they are significant even now. No matter what happens in life, God knows, God cares, God has set in motion a plan to take you from all affliction, and he will bring it to completion in his own way.
Don’t be afraid. Even though Jesus doesn’t always take away the suffering, don’t be afraid. Even facing it head on, for Smyrna, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer” (Rev 2:10). And he gives three reasons why.
Do not fear what you suffer. Because Jesus has been there. He’s experienced it. In fact, every believe has and will continue to experience it. Whether Smyrna or Temple, whether one of the 12 apostles, a distant disciple, or Jesus himself, those who hold to the truth will suffer in this life for that truth. Jesus forewarns you. But do not fear. I know it completely. I care. I am with you.
Second, do not fear who causes you to suffer. Although it’s the Jews who are slandering these disciples, Jesus identifies the real enemy behind it, “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you” (Rev 2:10). Don’t fear him because I’m holding him in check. I tell him he can go this far and no farther. In fact, I’ve already defeated him completely. And whatever I allow him to do, I will still use to fulfill my purposes.
Finally, do not fear how long you will suffer. Ten days is mentioned in the letter. Being in the book of Revelation, and at the direction of John himself – who wrote this letter – we take this as symbolism. Ten is the number of completeness. A complete amount. So, you will suffer for a complete and predetermined amount of time. And that timeframe is determined by Jesus. And yet, 10 is also a pretty small number. It’s not 100 days. It’s not 1,000 days, which is 10x10x10. It’s not a large number of completeness – like the great multitude of those who are saved. It’s a small amount of completeness. So do not fear because although you suffer what seems to be a great and weighty thing, in the eyes of the First and the Last – the eternal one – your suffering is fixed, and it will be small in the grand scheme of things.
And it all ends well. If you want to know how life, death, and eternity goes, ask the one who’s been there, done that. He says that because of your faith, you are rich. He says do not fear what you suffer, who you suffer by, and how long you will suffer. Trust the one who’s been there, done that. Trust the one who’s died and came to life again that when you are faithful even to the point of death, he will give you life also as your victor’s crown. Trust the one who is victorious that you who are victorious through him will not be hurt at all by the second death – that’s eternal death in hell. The first death being physical death. The second death won’t even touch you because you are going somewhere else entirely.
So that puts things into perspective a little bit. Just as the child who doesn’t get his way is devastated, yet the parent knows the struggle is small. Just as the teen whose heart is broken, yet the parent knows it will be alright. So also, the one who has lived and died, and lives again knows what’s really important in life. Even though life and its afflictions seem big, it’s eternity that is greater by far.