Title : A Letter from Christ to the Church in Smyrna
The letters to the 7 churches graphically demonstrate the conflict that God's people experience everywhere and at all times in the history of this fallen world. We must never think that we are the only generation hat find it difficult to be Christians. Every century and every generation in the history of the world, ever since the fall of Adam, and particularly the church age ( the last days - the Christian era), has seen untold suffering. Christians along with the rest of the world have suffered through wars, famine, disasters- and along with these persecution, misrepresentations, false accusations because of their faith in Jesus. A so called golden age of Christianity, following the 16th Century Reformation whereby we have seen the gospel spreading all over the world has never been free from suffering for the church . Wherever the gospel advances much blood is shed, for Satan and evil men hate the gospel, because the gospel exposes our sin before it frees us. John says in his gospel: “People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” ( John 3: 19,20) . The Western World, which since the end of World War II, has seen unprecedented peace and prosperity is now also the prime exporter of every conceivable sexual sin. The aggressive advent of the homosexual agenda, of abortion and child abuse, greed and the love of pleasure is fuelled mostly by the prosperous Western world. The Western world now hates the gospel and we are beginning to see not only intolerance against biblical Christianity; we are seeing active steps being taken to silence the voice of the Christian pastor and prophet.
The reason is quite apparent, and the Bible has an answer for this. Satan, the fallen angel hates the light. And concerning the church, the Lord Jesus has said: “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). Satan takes active steps to resist, oppose and destroy the church. He does this through the world systems. In countries where there is freedom of religion, he deceives and undermines the foundations of biblical Christianity , so that what you often see as the church is not church at all. It is a synagogue of Satan. In countries where Christianity is banned, he makes sure that Christians get killed. He works relentlessly to keep the world in darkness , and Christians (who have the light) he tirelessly works to oppress so that they lose their perspective and their joy in Jesus. Every single conflict in this world comes back to this same thing. A profound observation was once made when somebody asked General Douglas McArthur ( a WWII general ) as to what the reason for war and conflict was. He replied: "The problem is essentially theological". War and every source of conflict basically boils down to this immense battle between light and darkness, between good and evil, and with reference to the church Ephesians 6 makes it very clear that this battle originates not with flesh and blood but through the agency of the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). The church faces persecution as a direct result of this. The light of the church (symbolised by the golden lampstands - 1:12,13,20) destroys the work of the dark forces , and therefore the dark forces work with all their might to extinguish the light. This will become graphically apparent as we look into the vision of the seals in Revelation 6 - 8.
The great encouragement that comes to us through this Revelation to John is that all these things that are happening to God's church are known to Him. They are included in His sovereign decree. They are part of His plan. Amazingly our sovereign God has decreed that His church should be purified in these trials, and we see this revealed in chapters 2 & 3. The language indicates this - words like “patient endurance”, “false apostles”, “you have not grown weary” (Ephesus), “tribulation and poverty“, “slander”, "the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested" (Smyrna), "you dwell where Satan has his throne", "Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” (Pergamum) etc. The Lord knows all about this: what has happened, what is happening and what will happen !
It is clear that all these churches suffer incredible ordeals. Observe also that the churches shine with different degrees of spiritual purity and brilliance. In Smyrna (as we shall see today) the glory of Christ shines brightly, but Sardis has only a few who did not soil their garments (3:4) . Philadelphia is commended and receives an open door, while Laodicea is made up of lukewarm members.
We observe that Christ is concerned about the state of His churches. He is pleased when they do well. He is not pleased when they compromise the truth. In His providence He allows them to experience affliction, so that He may refine the church. Pure gold and refined metals only emerge when they are tested in the heat of a furnace. So it is with the church. Every church faces the furnace, and the Head of our church allows us to go through this to purify us. The Bible teaches us a profound theology of suffering. God clearly works for the good of His church in the midst of this suffering.
This city is located approximately 55 kilometres north of Ephesus on the Aegan sea. She was a rival of Ephesus claiming to be the first city of Asia in terms of beauty and size. Today this city is called "Izmir” and she is now the second largest city in modern Turkey.
As far as the church at Smyrna is concerned, she was probably founded by the apostle Paul during his 3rd missionary journey (AD 53 - 56). Whilst Paul was in Ephesus (Acts 19:1ff) he had daily lectures in the hall of Tyrannus. We read in 19:10 :"This continued for 2 years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the Word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” Now Smyrna wasn't far from Ephesus, and the people of Ephesus most certainly would have been included among the many in the province of Asia who heard the Word of the Lord.
One of the most famous church fathers was Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69 – 155). Church history says that he was discipled by the apostle John, who also ordained him to the pastorate in Smyrna. He was martyred as an old man. To this church the Lord Jesus directs words of sympathy and assurance and words of exhortation and promise.
1. WORDS OF SYMPATHY AND ASSURANCE
The Lord Jesus who identifies Himself here as “the first and the last (Alpha and Omega) who died and came to life” says to this church: “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ (Rev. 2:9-11)
Please note: The Lord Jesus intimately knows their tribulation and poverty. Christians in were often discriminated against and deprived of jobs. They belonged to a lower caste. Becoming a Christian, from an earthly point of view was a real sacrifice. It often meant hunger, poverty, imprisonment and death. Jesus knows that ! He reminds them however of the reality. They are rich- spiritually rich! Their reward is in heaven (Matt 5:12).They are storing up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matt 6:20). For this reason they must not begin to pity themselves.
The apostle Paul had to remind the Corinthian Christians of this : "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich." (2Cor. 8:9) . What perspective and what comfort that their Lord knows all this and has taken care of their future rewards.
Now consider for a moment the source of their afflictions and poverty! John refers to the slander “of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” It appears to be the local community of Jews. They claimed to be God's people racially (descended from Abraham), but not really. Paul in his letter to the Romans (Rom.2:28,29) makes it very clear: "for no man is a Jew who is one outwardly… but a man is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter." These Jews resisted Christ, and they were deliberately blaspheming God as they persecuted His church under the guise of doing Him service (Jn. 16:2). Thus John was able to say that they were of the “synagogue of Satan”. Satan is now introduced as the prime mover behind the slander (which caused tribulation and poverty). It is significant that Satan’s name means "accuser“ or “slanderer". That is precisely what they did! They followed in their father’s footsteps (v. 9b).
2. WORDS OF EXHORTATION & WORDS OF PROMISE
If we find ourselves in such discouraging circumstances, a word of encouragement and perspective is what is needed, and the Lord Jesus is more than willing to give it to the Smyrneans.
Satan is the cause of the suffering of the Christians, but we learn that behind and above stands the eternal, sovereign God who permits these things to happen for a season, and who brings glory for Himself out of this suffering of the saints, just as He brought glory out of the cross.
Jesus, from His exalted position in heaven knows ahead of time what must be and He tells His flock: “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.”
The Lord Jesus exhorts the Christians at Smyrna not to fear. He exhorts them to be faithful even to the point of death. Is that not a tall order? Not if we take into consideration that the history of God’s faithfulness proves Him to be trustworthy. He is not in the habit of forsaking His people in their difficulties , and just as He was with His people when they suffered in Egypt ; just as He was present with Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in the fire (Daniel) , and just as He was with Daniel in the Lion's den, and just as He was with David in his many trials , so the Lord Jesus is with the church at Smyrna , and so He is with His church today. "Never will I leave you ; never will I forsake you" is His promise to Moses ( Deut. 31:6) and Joshua (1:5) and also to N.T. saints ( Hebrews 13:5). We shall only persevere to the end by the grace of God. In our own strength we would never withstand persecution.
The Lord Jesus tells His people that this is for the purpose of testing. Once again we learn that even though Satan does this , God uses such testing to purify His church.
The Lord Jesus says that this persecution will be very limited - 10 days - painful yes ; but nevertheless a very limited time. The fact that it is expressed by days and not by months or years , should encourage the church at Smyrna. The Scripture speaks in a number of places of such short seasons of suffering , which serve as an encouragement to endurance ( Is 26:20 ; 54:8 ; Mt 24:22 ; 2 Cor 4:17 ; 1 Pet 1:6)
The Lord Jesus ends with a word of promise : "Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life". This refers to the crown of eternal life, which all who belong to the Lamb , and all whose names are written in the book of life, shall receive. An added admonition and promise follows : "He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death." Polycarp and Antipas of Smyrna might have died the first death ( which we all must die i.e. the separation between body and soul). The Lord Jesus does not promise His people that they will not get hurt in this process - but they certainly will not be hurt in the second death which is eternal separation between the soul and the Saviour God.
What is the Spirit saying?
Jesus knows all about the church’s trials. He knows that we have been slandered and misrepresented by those who say that they are Christians but are not. He is telling us: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Satan is testing you, but those who belong to Christ will survive the fire of testing.” Thank God that He is in charge ! Be faithful unto death, and don’t be afraid of that death. Fear God! He has the power to keep your soul for heaven. He also has the power to cast the soul that has not trusted Him in Christ into eternal hell – the second death. Be faithful unto death and receive the promise - the crown of eternal life. Amen