I invite you to open your Bibles to Revelation 2:8-11, where we’ll spend our time this morning. Last week we looked at the letter from Christ to the church in Ephesus, this week we’ll look at the letter from Christ to the church in Smyrna.
In v8 Jesus sets the tone of the letter saying, “And the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the First and the Last, who died and came to life.’” Here the Cosmic Christ describes Himself to the church in Smyrna in a manner that suits the situation of the church in Smyrna. This is easily seen when you understand tha setting within the city of Smyrna at that time. Smyrna was one of the greatest cities in the region. Located directly off the Aegean Sea Smyrna had earned the nickname the ‘Port of Asia.’ As opposed to most of the cities in the Roman Empire, Smyrna was planned out before it was built, so many would come to see it’s beauty. It had paved roads, a large library, a gymnasium, and some believe it had a shrine dedicated to Homer who is thought to have been borne there. Smyrna was a strong/faithful ally of Rome and due to its Roman allegiance it actually won the privilege of being one of the only cities to have a temple dedicated to Roman Emperor’s alone. Therefore, you can imagine how patriotic and how filled the city was with those who were pro-Rome even before it was normal to be pro-Rome.
Due to the overwhelming Roman patriotism in the city Christians were severely persecuted. Many of them were harassed and pressured, some were even killed being thought of as enemies of the state. Into this context, where Christians are suffering, Jesus says ‘I am the first and the Last, who died and came to life.’ Why begin like this? To encourage them in suffering, and remind them that though suffering may abound in the present, it has been defeated in His death and resurrection. ‘He died’ for sins not His own, bearing the full wrath of God making perfect atonement on the cross as their (and our) substitute. ‘He died and came to life.’ In the resurrection the fatal blow was given to Satan, sin, and death forever and now all of those who are united to Christ by faith will, from their own death, rise victoriously in the same manner. The church in Smyrna was experiencing what Jesus experienced in His life, and in hearing His words they would’ve been greatly encouraged in their own position, being reminded of Jesus’ position as the first and the last, as the Sovereign King over sin and death.
This first verse sets the tone for the whole letter to the church in Smyrna. Unlike the letter to the Ephesians Jesus has nothing against the church in Smyrna, they’re faithful, they’re a healthy congregation doing life as they ought to. Though they’re healthy there is one issue they keep facing, suffering. Thus the one constant we see throughout their letter is: remain faithful, even unto death. In this we see our first takeaway from the letter. A church can be faithful to God, a church can be doing well, a church can be healthy AND still experience violent persecution. Faithfulness to God does not guarantee safety from the world – in fact the entire Scripture seems to say the opposite. That faithfulness to God will often put you at odds with the world. You ever thought about that? I think too many of us believe that if our church is healthy we won’t have any problems, we won’t have any suffering, and we won’t have any issues to deal with. Wrong. Though we shouldn’t seek persecution, when we seek to be faithful to God as a church we should expect suffering to rise. Are you ok with that? Or is that something you’re not ok with? Are you willing to endure and go through persecution for being a Christian? You must settle this inside your own heart before it comes, so when it comes you know how to respond. The call to remain faithful that Jesus gives to the church in Smyrna, He gives to His whole Church too.
In v9-10 we find the bulk of the letter, it says, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say 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.”
There is much for us here:
First, the Smyrna believers are poor but they are rich. Jesus says He is aware of their tribulation and poverty. In Smyrna the worship of the emperor permeated into every aspect of the city and every village in Asia Minor, such that, citizens could only grow socially and economically if they participated in the Roman cult. Why? It wasn’t just the citizens who joined in emperor worship, it was the city officials too, and historians believe the city officials would give out large sums of money to common citizens for attending these pagan ceremonies. This kind of religious patriotism meant not only that Christians were often poor and unemployed, but that in Asia Minor there was very little patience for Christians because they refused to worship the emperor. Pressure to conform and to give in would have been at all time high, and those who refused to do so were punished according to Roman Law (capital punishment or exile). So, if they were poor why does Jesus say they are rich? Anyone remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12? “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In this we clearly see that Jesus calls those who suffer for His names sake ‘blessed.’ The Smyrna believers, though poor due to persecution, are blessed. And because they are blessed by God, they are rich. Do you see that? Not financially wealthy, but rich in a greater manner, rich spiritually in Christ. Even though, in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of their persecutors, it looks like they’ve got nothing, in Christ they actually possess everything. Do you believe that? Or do you scoff at this thinking what I’m saying isn’t practical, or maybe even thinking that no one really believe this? I believe this…I really do believe you have nothing in this life if you don’t have Christ though you may have everything money can buy. I also really do believe that God will sometimes remove everything from your life to remind you that all those things should mean nothing to you. That Jesus says they are rich is meant to be a great encouragement to them and to all believers who are suffering on account of Christ. We should therefore never lose courage even if the world detests us, mocks us, ridicules us, or kills us. We have a sure inheritance in Christ and no king, no president, and no common man can take it away from us. We’re already seated in the heavenly places in Christ, and if an angry mob decides to make martyrs of us they’ll be functioning as our chauffeur to glory. Be encouraged, if you have Christ you are rich.
Second, the Smyrna believers were slandered by the synagogue of Satan. Apparently in Smyrna there was a group of people who called themselves Jews who were slandering the Christians in the city. Though the professed to know God their opposition to the Christians make plain that they were under the influence of Satan, and therefore have become a synagogue of Satan. It’s ironic that by slandering the Christians these so-called Jews are demonstrating that they are false Jews and that the Christians in Smyrna, by implication, are the ‘true Israel.’ This would agree with the rest of Scripture where Christ’s Church is said to be the true ‘Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16). These words teach us that any assembly teaching, spreading, or promoting heresy, or a false gospel, sets themselves in opposition to the purity of the true gospel, and by so doing set themselves in opposition to the author of that gospel, God Himself.
These places are not churches, they are synagogue’s of Satan. Satan presides over these assemblies, works in them, deceives those gathering in them, and is in reality served by them. They dishonor the true God by using His holy name to promote the interests of Satan, and they hurt people by teaching errors that damn to hell. This calls us to have a high view of God and His Word, taking what He says here to be good, true, and beautiful. Anyone who trifles with its contents, or ignores its truth claims, falls under condemnation. With these wicked assemblies in view Jesus encourages the Smyrna believers in v10a saying ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer’ making reference to both what they’ve suffered at the hands of these satanic synagogues and what they’ll have to endure from the hand of Satan himself in v10. This is not a general call to ‘not fear’ but a reminder that the reason they shouldn’t fear is because their lives are held within the hands of the One who has already died and rose from death, defeating the devil and his schemes for all time. In fact, because Satan has already been conquered the current trials the Smyrna believers are in, and the current trials you are in, is the only hell you’ll ever have to endure.
Third, the Smyrna believers will have 10 days of tribulation. v10b says, “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.” That the Church in Smyrna will have a devil provoked 10 days of tribulation and testing is an illusion to Daniel 1:12-14 when Daniel and his friends were facing a similar 10 day trial and pressure to compromise their faith. Some of you probably know the story: rather than eating food sacrificed to idols and eating at the king’s table (which was a symbolic action demonstrating one’s loyalty to the king) Daniel and his friends chose to go without the king’s choice food and remain loyal to God. Jesus here uses the situation of Daniel to describe the hostile climate the Smyrna Christians live in and by doing so was in effect saying, ‘Though the devil is about the make life very hard for you, bringing trouble, difficulty, suffering, and possible death, this trial will be brief. As I called Daniel and his friends to be faithful, so you too must be faithful.’
In response to these three things the Smyrna believers are facing Jesus gives His main encouragement to them in v10c-11a, “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.” Faithfulness was something Smyrna knew quite a lot about due to its famed faithfulness to the empire. Jesus now calls them to that same kind of faithful devotion to Him, even though it may bring them death. It’s a local touch that Jesus uses when He promises them a crown of life, because Smyrna was famous for it’s athletic champions who wore a leafed crown upon victory, AND many historians had commented that the buildings of Smyrna itself stood as a beautiful and elegant crown atop the hills of Asia Minor. Smyrna may be the crown of Asia Minor, but the true crown is given to those who are faithful to Christ the King.
Again we see irony present as we end our passage in v11b, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” It’s ironic that Jesus says being faithful unto death is the way to conquer, and that those who are faithful unto death won’t be hurt by the second death (judgment). It would seem to us that earthly defeat and death is just that, defeat. But Jesus says it’s the way to heavenly victory and life. Therefore we must hear and heed the call of Christ to the church in Smyrna. ‘Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.’
The church in Smyrna knew these things well, and they suffered much for following Christ. Did you know that within their own congregation was one of the most famous Christians at that time? His name was Polycarp; an exceptional disciple of the apostle John, loved member of the community, and a gifted preacher, Polycarp was elected to be bishop of the church in Smyrna. But as would happen to many believers in Smyrna, Polycarp refused to acknowledge that Caesar was Lord, and was killed in 160 A.D. This is what happened:
After being arrested and Roman official said, “Have respect for your old age Polycarp, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’” Polycarp looked grimly at the wicked heathen multitude in the stadium, and gesturing towards them, he said, “Down with the Atheists!” “Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” To which he said, “86 years have I have served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” He then prayed these words, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”
They lit the fires, and they blazed, but the fires did not consume him. They formed an arch around him and he glowed a gold-ish hue. The Romans officials were at first amazed, and then angered. They then took a knife and plunged it into Polykarp’s heart, and so much blood poured forth from his body that the flames were extinguished. Everyone marveled.
The time is coming friends, when you will have to decide what kind of Christian you are going to be. The one who sticks around in good times, enjoying the fads and trends of the Church? Or the one who sticks around when suffering starts and people begin killing members of the Church? This is a decision you must make before suffering begins to happen, so that when suffering comes you won’t find your heart retreating, but will understand that suffering is normal for the Christian life. So as they embraced Jesus’ call to be faithful in suffering – SonRise Community Church…embrace suffering, embrace suffering – by doing so you’ll be embracing the narrow road and the same manner of life that Jesus lived.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the church.