Today’s Scripture Reading (April 21, 2018): Revelation 2
Antiochus III was a Seleucid king who ruled over Syria and large parts of Western Asia by the end of Third Century B.C.E. Antiochus III is sometimes called Antiochus III the Great, but “The Great” is a self-chosen title. Antiochus believed that he was “Basileus Megas” or “Great King,” a traditional title for Persian Kings. Antiochus III was a military king who experienced military success during the middle parts of his reign.
However, he also suffered a major setback close to the end of his reign. Antiochus III pitted his Seleucid forces against the army of the Roman Republic, and for four years the two powers fought for control of Western Asia. By the end of the four-year war, it was clear that the winner was the Roman Republic, and one of the areas that the Roman Republic had liberated was the city of Smyrna in modern day Turkey. The people of Smyrna responded to the liberation by building the first Temple to “dea Roma” in the city. Roma was the female deity that had come to personify the city of Rome.
Over the next few decades, Smyrna continued worshipping the emperors of Rome. And by the time that John was writing Revelation, almost two centuries later, Smyrna had gone from being a place where the Emperors of Rome could be worshipped, to being a city where Emperor worship had become mandatory.
The mandatory worship of the Emperors of Rome presented a special challenge to the monotheistic Christians and the Jews of the city. John remarks that they were poor, and the word used here is not just that there was a level of poverty among the Christians of Smyrna, but that their poverty was severe. The reality was that one of the ways to control the belief structure of the people is to control the employment of the people. Those who did not measure up to the belief standards of the city would be fired, refused employment and robbed because of their lack of belief. These measures continue to be used today. But the Christians were willing to put up with even this level of poverty and the loss of their belongings because they knew they had riches elsewhere. In a city that was known for its riches, Christians were rich even though they were materially poor.
John adds a comment about “those who say they are Jews and are not.” Some have argued that this indicates that true Jews worshipped Christ, but the more logical reading of the text is that there were Jews in Smyrna who seemed to believe that they could serve both the God of Israel and the Emperor, and were possibly encouraging the Christians to do the same. But these were not real Jews. Judaism has always persisted in the radical belief that there is only one God who is worthy of our worship, and as Christians, we too believe in one God, who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not that the Roman pantheon of gods could not be expanded to accept one more, but rather that Jews and Christians refuse to bend their knee to any gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And even if poverty is the result, we will persist in our worship of only one God.
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Revelation 3