Dr. Richard L. Strauss
October 1, 1978
Three cities in Asia Minor contested the claim to be "Asia's first city." The city of Smyrna settled the argument by printing on her coins, "First of Asia in beauty and size," so no one could dispute her contention. Ephesus might well be the leading commercial center, and the home of the goddess Diana. Pergamum might well be the capital of the province. But neither one matched the size and beauty of Smyrna.
Situated at the head of a gulf which extended 30 miles inland, it sloped upward from its harbor in lovely symmetrical design, capped on the summit of the hill with its impressive public buildings. The awe-inspiring view, from the deck of a ship out in the gulf, was like a beautiful crown reaching majestically towards the heavens. Indeed the phrase "the crown of Smyrna" had become a famous one to the ancient world. Maybe that's why the Lord Jesus talked about the crown in Revelation 2:10.
And the inhabitants of Smyrna were proud citizens and were faithful to their Roman conquerors. The Roman statesman Cicero boldly stated that Smyrna was "the city of our most faithful and most ancient allies." In 26 A.D., the citizens of Smyrna argued successfully before the Roman senate that the great temple to be dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius should be constructed in their city because their faithful friendship to Rome outdated all others.
The name "Smyrna" is a slight variation of the word "myrrh," and it is from this product for which Smyrna was probably famous, that the city took its name. Myrrh was the gum of a plant used as a sort of spice in the ancient world. It was one ingredient of the oil for anointing the priests of the Old Testament (Exodus 30:23). It was made into fragrant perfume as we learn in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 5:5, also Psalm 45:8, Proverbs 7:17). And it was also used in the embalming of a body for burial, as we found out when Nicodemus came to prepare the body of our Lord in John 19:39 (see also Matthew 2:11, Mark 15:22). As linens were wrapped around the body of the deceased loved one, myrrh was packed between the folds of cloth. Myrrh was the perfume of death.
What an appropriate name for the city in which we find a suffering church of Jesus Christ. It's a lovely little letter, the shortest of the seven--and the only one in which we find no trace of a criticism. Let's look at it, shall we, and note the persecution they endured, the provision they enjoyed, and the promise they expected.
1. The Persecution They Endured
The attendance must have been slightly larger that Sunday morning, for the word had certainly gotten around that a letter from John had arrived and would be read by the pastor. They may have heard that Christ himself had dictated the letter to the Apostle during his exile on the isle of Patmos, and they were there to hear what Christ thought of them.
"I know your works" says the Lord. I know all about your situation there in Smyrna. I know your tribulation. We don't know when the church at Smyrna started. Scripture doesn't tell us. But it seems that through its history, it had been the object of fierce opposition and persecution. The intensely proud and patriotic citizens resented the Christians for not sprinkling incense on the fire that burned before the statue of the emperor. To participate in the new cult of emperor worship would be idolatry for the believer; he could not call Caesar "lord" when Jesus Christ was his Lord. And his pagan neighbors interpreted his refusal as the next thing to treason. All sorts of pressures were brought to bear to make him conform and participate in emperor worship. No doubt, much of this pressure was financial.
"I know your poverty" says the Savior to his suffering assembly in Revelation 2:9. These folks were indescribably poor. I rather doubt that it was because they were all from the lower strata of society, or that their sacrificial giving to the Lord's work left them penniless. Their poverty seems to be the product of their persecution according to this context. It is quite likely that the citizens of Smyrna ostracized them from society. Where a Christian was a businessman, his shop was boycotted, and his goods were shunned so that he would eventually be forced out of business. It is quite possible that the local government of Smyrna permitted unrestrained pillaging of a Christian's property without punishment. Or maybe there was a confiscation of Christian's possessions by some discriminatory legislation. Nowhere in the Roman empire had there been such intense and prolonged persecution against Christians.
Now in our reading up until now, you've probably thought that this suffering was entirely the work of zealous, nationalistic, Roman citizens. But we are about to learn that there was another faction in Smyrna responsible for much of the Christian suffering.
"I know the slander of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan." Evidently there was a strong Jewish element in the city, stirring up the populace against the Christians by defamation, false charges, malicious gossip, and agitation of every sort. You see, Rome was not exceptionally fond of these Jews either. So if the Jews could shout loud and long enough against the Christians, it removed the finger of suspicion from themselves. From the very beginning of Christianity in Jerusalem, the Jews opposed it.
This happened all over the Roman empire. It was standard practice for Jews to stir up opposition to the Christians. They stirred up opposition to the Apostle Paul in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, in Thessalonica, and in Corinth. The book of Acts ends with Paul in prison at Rome, facing the charges of the Jews against him. Zealous Jews hated Christianity.
When this letter was received in Smyrna and read to the congregation, many Bible scholars believe that the pastor who read it was a young man 26 years of age named Polycarp. Sixty years later this same godly Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna, and the same persecution against Christianity was being carried on. Other church fathers tell us how officers of the city pleaded with him to sacrifice to the emperor and revile his Christ. "Eighty six years have I served Him, and He has done no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" (Quoted in Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church). Tradition says it was the Jews who gathered wood for his burning at the stake. Though it was the Sabbath day, they willfully and consciously flaunted the law of Moses. They were not interested in following the Word of God. Rather, they wanted to destroy those who opposed them, and wanted to rid themselves of this saintly Christian bishop of Smyrna.
They claim to be Jews, says the Lord, but they are not; they of the synagogue of Satan. They are tools to do the devil's work. Their slanderous tongues shall bring God's wrath upon them.
But tribulation and poverty and slander were not all. There was also prison. The Lord says in verse 10, "Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested."
Now prisons in the New Testament times were not for punishment. The state was not interested in burdening itself with the custody of criminals and certainly had no interest in rehabilitating criminals. The standard punishment were fines, exile or death. Prisons were merely the place where they housed those awaiting trial or death. The writer of this letter fully expected that some of the believers at Smyrna would be executed for their faith. On down in the same verse (10) he says, "Be faithful unto death." This was extreme and intensive persecution.
This is the kind of trial that none of us have ever faced. These Christians were about to pay the supreme price for their faith in Jesus Christ. You and I have problems in our lives, serious problems, heart-breaking difficulties. But here were Christians who were entering into the deepest and most desperate of human trials--they walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
Is your heart burdened today? Do you feel weighted down by some grievous trial God has permitted to come into your life? Note well what consolation God gave to Christians at Smyrna as they faced the most serious of all trials, and you will have all the provision you need to handle the problems in your life.
2. The Provision They Enjoyed
a. The Sufficiency of the Savior
What encouragement, what comfort, what solace is there then for the suffering church at Smyrna? We skipped reading verse 8 today, so let's look at it now. Revelation 2:8. "These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life."
The Christ who addresses them in this letter is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the A to Z, the eternal, all-sufficient one. The sufficiency of the Savior is their consolation. You see, no matter what they were called upon to suffer, He was there before them. He was one who became dead, and yet lived.
Why should they be concerned because they faced death? He faced it before them. He triumphed over it. And His victory is the guarantee of their victory over death. It was the Apostle John himself who recorded the word of the Savior in the upper room (John 14:19), "Because I live, you shall live also." "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept" said Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:20. His resurrection is the pattern for ours. No matter what we suffer, we know that He suffered the same, or something worse before us.
Turn to the epistle to the Hebrews where it is spelled out for us in detail. You see in Hebrews 2:14-15, "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
Hebrews 2:16 tells us that He took not the nature of angels but became a man, like unto His brethren (verse 17). Why? Hebrews 2:18 tells us: "For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to succor [aid] those who are tempted."
He died to free us from bondage to death and destroy the power of death. He had a human nature just like us. Now He can help (succor)--He can come to the aid of us when we are tested.
Hebrews 4:15 says the very same thing. "For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." He was tested in all points like as we are; He knows what we are going through; His heart is sympathetic with ours; and since He has gone through it, He can help us. He invites us to come boldly before Him and obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).
When Christ says to your heart today, "I know your suffering," He means more than that He just knows about it. He knows it by firsthand experience. He's been through it--and that qualifies Him to be your strength and sustenance and sufficiency in it.
b. The Satisfaction of True Riches
There is another little word of consolation tucked away in verse 9, this one in the form of a parenthesis. "I know your poverty (but you are rich)." They were poor, yet they were rich; they had the satisfaction of true riches.
What was it that they possessed that was so valuable? It certainly wasn't money, nor material things. Certainly they had spiritual riches, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might be rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9). But I think it goes beyond that.
Peter gives us a hint in 1 Peter 1:6-7. "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, you are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ."
The trial of our faith is precious, valuable. Why is our tried faith so valuable? We get another hint in 1 Peter 5:10. "But the God of all grace, who has called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that you have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you." You see, it helps to complete us, train us, make us fully-developed, well-rounded, mature, and well-equipped Christians, who are stable and strong. It makes us like Jesus, and that is of great value. There is nothing more valuable than a Christ-like spirit.
That mature Christian character is a gem of great value in the sight of God. The blessing you can be to God's work, and to other believers, as a mature, gracious, Spirit-filled Christian, is invaluable.
The writer to the Hebrews makes a similar comment in Hebrews 12:11. "No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." The trials here and now mold our character for greater usefulness here, and prepare us for the greater blessings and joys of eternity in God's presence. And this is what makes us really rich.
Now we anticipate the riches of God's presence some day. Nowhere is it better expressed than in the classic passage on the ministry by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:8-18.
We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed--always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.
And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, "I believed and therefore I spoke," we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.
The day is coming, dear Christian, when you will rest securely in the blessed presence of God, and with the Apostle John, and the Apostle Paul, and Polycarp, and the believers at Smyrna, and the Christians from behind the Iron Curtain and Cambodia and Rhodesia and Uganda. You will look back on these very trials you are bearing today, and they will be as nothing compared with that glory. The satisfaction of true riches is God's provision for your time of trial today.
But there is one more idea here that brought consolation to the Smyrnians, and its implied in verse 10: the sovereignty of God. When the Lord promised those folks more trouble, and even imprisonment and death, note what he says. "And you shall have tribulation ten days."
I get God's sovereignty out of that statement. Whether this is a literal ten days, or it is figurative of ten separate persecutions in church history I don't know. There is a great debate about this among Bible commentators. But this I do know: The trial will come to an end, in God's own time, and according to God's own will. It is a limited length of time, within the perfect plan of God. He allowed the suffering. I'm not saying He caused it, but He did permit it. The whole thing is in His control.
What a blessed comfort in times of testing, to know that if we belong to the Lord, and are seeking His will, everything that comes into our lives is by His permission, and for His glory. Everything works together for good, everything, with no exceptions, to them who love God (Romans 8:28).
What a blessing to know that the burden in your life is there because God has a purpose in it. And your prayer should not be, "Why, Lord?" but rather, "What, Lord? Do You want to teach me through this suffering? What do You want me to do? Show me Your will."
If He wants the trial to continue, as he did with Paul, then ask him to give you victory in it, and grace to bear it. It's interesting that in Romans 8:37, Paul didn't say that God was going to deliver us from all of our problems. He said, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us." In all these things. That's the provision they enjoyed.
3. The Promise They Expected
Having seen the persecution they endured, and the provision they enjoyed in that persecution, we have one more part of this letter to discover, and that is the promise they expected.
There are two promises, and I'd like to deal with the second one first.
a. Release from the Second Death
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death" (Revelation 2:11).
Physical death--particularly the death of the martyr, as Polycarp's death at the stake--is a bitter cup to drink. But there is a bitterer cup, and that is a second death. Christ says there is a second death beyond the first. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus said, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." A lot of people think that means the devil. You don't have to fear the devil. God's got him under control. Fear God! He is the one who has the power of death!
The second death is the eternal separation of the soul from God in hell. It isn't a pleasant subject, and we often shy away from it, but it is a doctrine of God's Word. Jesus Christ clearly taught it: a place of eternal torment for those who reject His free gift of salvation. In Revelation 21:8 we see it described for us again, with this appendix, "which is the second death."
"But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8).
It has no claim on the true believer in Jesus Christ. He has exempted us from the second death, from eternal death, and in its place given us eternal life, everlasting blessedness in the presence of God. The overcomer in Revelation 2:11 is not some special class of Christian, but every true believer in Jesus Christ. The second death has no claim upon him.
Are you just such an individual today, or are you plagued with fears about the eternal destiny of your soul? If you have received Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, you need have no fear. You can know that you have eternal life. You can thank God for that.
But if you have not acknowledged your sin and put your faith in Jesus Christ, the second death will hurt you--eternally. I'm not suggesting you trust Christ as merely fire insurance, but I am suggesting that you trust Christ as your personal Savior from sin. He alone can bring meaning to life. He alone can assure eternity in heaven. He alone can provide deliverance from the second death.
b. Reward for Faithfulness
There is a second promise for those believers at Smyrna. There is something special for certain believers that others do not have, and that is told in Revelation 2:10. "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life."
Escape from the second death is for every believer. But not every believer will have a crown of life. The crown of life is not everlasting life, but a special reward for faithfulness. It is an added blessing given to some Christians who meet the condition.
What is that condition? Dying as a martyr for the Savior? Well, it is for those people, but it is for others, too. Turn back to James 1:12. "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."
The crown of life is for the Christian who patiently endures testing. Patience endurance of any trial provides us with the opportunity of earning the crown of life. Just the suffering does not earn us the crown. It is the patient endurance of that suffering.
If that testing God has for you is physical death, then you must bear it patiently. If it is some other burden or trial, then God calls on you to bear it patiently, and if you do, He will reward you richly in heaven. You dear folks in the heat of testing and trial ought to thank the Lord for the opportunity He has afforded you. You have the privilege of earning a crown. It cannot possibly be earned by anyone who is not suffering some trial.
God has made you a very select and privileged individual. God wants you to have that crown. That's why He gave you the opportunity. Don't disappoint Him. You wait for Him and for His time patiently, will you? If you do, there's something extra special for you, a crown to lay at Jesus feet, a crown that symbolizes the full and abundant life of a Christian who has been perfected through suffering.
Only God knows what trial you're suffering today. We hear this preached over and over again. I've referred to these passages on numerous occasions. But what happens when the trial comes? I know what happens in my life: I forget the very things I preach. And I know what happens in your lives: you forget the very things I preach! May God help us to take these passages of Scripture and build them into the very fiber of our being. May we learn to trust Him. Let's pray.
Father, we thank You for these believers at Smyrna, some of whom were faithful unto death. Oh, God, we pray that You'll make us faithful. Whether we ever have to give our lives for our faith or not, help us to be faithful under any kind of pressures, under all kinds of suffering. We pray, Lord, that You will strengthen us and establish us, and help us to grow into maturity in Jesus Christ. For it's in His name we pray. Amen.