8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
9 “‘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. 10 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. 11 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.’
Letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3
|Addressed to the angel of the church||2:1||2:8||2:12||2:18||3:1||3:7||3:14|
|Some aspect of vision of Christ in ch. 1 related to the church||2:1||2:8||2:12||2:18||3:1||3:7||3:14|
|Commendation and/or encouragement of the church||2:2-3, 6||2:9||2:13||2:19, 24-25||3:4||3:8-10|
|Correction of the church||2:4||2:14-15||2:20-23||3:2||3:14-18|
|Call to repent and threat of judgment||2:5||2:16||2:21||3:3||3:19|
|Call to listen to the message of the Spirit||2:7||2:11||2:17||2:29||3:6||3:13||3:22|
|Promise to "conqueror" (one who perseveres)||2:7||2:11||2:17||2:26-28||3:5||3:11-12||3:21|
(Table adapted from Thomas R. Schreiner, ESV Expository Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews-Revelation, 569)
Referring to the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, H. B. Charles said, “while these letters were not written to us, they were written for us.” That is true, and it can be said not only of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, but of all the epistles that are found in the New Testament: these things were not written to us, but they were written for us.
So if the letter to the church in Smyrna was written for us, what is the message that we are meant to hear in this letter? At its core, at its most basic level, I think the message is this: the church in Smyrna was a suffering church because they were not a compromising church.
Of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only two that were not rebuked or corrected by Jesus; they only received commendation and encouragement.
Of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus had nothing good to say about the churches in Sardis and Laodicea; they only received rebuke and correction. Sardis for being a dead church, and Laodicea for being a compromising church.
The believers – the Christians, the followers of Jesus – in Smyrna who collectively were the church in that city, did not and would not compromise their faith by bowing to the pressures of their culture, their society, the world’s system, Satan, their neighbors, their co-workers and employers, perhaps even their family members. They suffered tribulation, poverty, slander, imprisonment, and even death as a result of refusing to compromise their faith. More importantly, they were commended by Jesus for not compromising.
Perhaps added to that message about compromise is a lesson in perspective and values: human perspective versus God’s perspective, temporary perspective versus eternal perspective, worldly values as opposed to heavenly values.
To say it differently, what is shaping our worldview and even our very lives?
Is it our perspective as humans, or is it God’s perspective as the creator of humanity?
Is it our temporary stay (our sojourn) during our brief life on this planet, or is it the true reality of a never-ending eternity, either with God or not, forever?
Is it the worldly value-system that we inherit and absorb simply by living in this world, in whichever culture and community God has placed us in, or is it the heavenly value-system that has been communicated clearly by God in his Word, the Bible, and that can only be acquired by learning, hearing, reading, and internalizing God’s Word?
Smyrna was located about 35 miles north of Ephesus on the coast of the Aegean Sea. In the first century AD, when Revelation was written, it had an excellent harbor for shipping, which made it a prosperous and wealthy port city, and it was in competition with Ephesus for the title of “First City of Asia,” referring to the Roman province of Asia. Its population was somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000, a little smaller than Ephesus, and it was a proud and beautiful city, with an agora (marketplace), stadium, library, and a public theater that rivaled the theater in Ephesus for size.
Smyrna was a favorite city of both the Roman empire and the Roman emperors. In 195 BC Smyrna built the first temple in honor of Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome, and arguably created that religious cult. In 23 BC, in competition with ten other cities, Smyrna was given the right to build a temple to the emperor Tiberius.
Why is that important? Because the citizens of Smyrna placed a very high value on the worship of both Rome and the Roman Emperor, and a religion such as Christianity that claimed, rightly, that Jesus was Lord rather than Caesar, was not going to be well-received.
In addition to the worship of Rome and its emperors, there was a large Jewish population in Smyrna. Judaism was recognized by Roman law as a religion that had a legal exemption from worshiping and offering sacrifices to the multiple religions of Rome, including emperor worship.
We know from the New Testament, and especially the book of Acts, that while the first Christians were Jews, the number of Jews who believed in and followed Jesus as the Christ were a minority, and Jewish opposition to Christianity was sometimes fierce, resulting in outbursts of intense persecution, which is what we see described in this letter to the church in Smyrna.
Jesus’ description of himself
How does Jesus describe himself in verse 8? “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.’” Why did he choose these specific aspects of the vision that John saw in chapter 1 to relate to the suffering church in Smyrna? What three things (at least) is he communicating to those suffering Christians?
1. Jesus is eternal
Jesus is “the first and the last,” which is to say that he is the eternal one, the one who was at the beginning, and the one who will be at the end. He is from everlasting to everlasting.
His words here are effectively the same as what God the Father said in Revelation 1:8: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” This is a declaration of God’s eternality. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, never had a beginning. They have always been one God in three distinct persons.
2. Jesus is sovereign
John 1:3 tells us this about Jesus: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” And Colossians 1:16 says:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
An eternal, everlasting being, who also happened to create everything that exists other than himself, is by rights of his eternality and his title of Creator also the sovereign One. Nothing happens in this universe outside of “the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
3. Jesus is victorious over death
Amazingly, incredibly, the eternal and sovereign God of the universe, in the person of Jesus Christ, “died and came to life.” This is the gospel! This is the good news! God the Son, incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, allowed himself to suffer and be killed by Roman soldiers at the demand of the Jews in Jerusalem. He was nailed to a tree, a Roman cross, on a Friday, where he hung for hours enduring the wrath of God and the scorn of humans, humiliated and humbled, until it was finished. Then he died, was buried, and on the third day, early on a Sunday morning, he rose again to life, victorious over death, never to die again.
So do not fear
In Revelation 1:17-18 John records that when he saw the vision of Jesus he fell at Jesus’ feet “as though dead.” But Jesus’ first words to John were, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Likewise to the suffering church in Smyrna, Jesus tells them in 2:10, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” and “be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
These two commands from Jesus, and the encouragement and promise that comes with them, carry weight and meaning not only because of who he is, but because he is the eternal one, the sovereign one, and the one who is victorious over death.
Jesus has an eternal perspective; he sees how brief our lives really are against the backdrop of eternity. Jesus is the sovereign One who only allows into our lives those things and circumstances that shape and mold us into Christ-like maturity, and are ultimately for our good. Jesus is the God-man who has also suffered and died, and rose from the grave victorious over death. He has walked the path of suffering.
Jesus knows their present suffering
“I know,” Jesus says in verse 9. “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.”
Jesus knows their tribulation
As Job said in Job 14:1, “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.” To some extent, whether small or great, every human being has suffered in one way or another. Perhaps the pain of an injury, the discomfort of an illness, the loss of friends or family, or the harsh words of another. Everyone experiences some kind of suffering in this life.
The ESV uses the word “tribulation” here for what the church in Smyrna is experiencing. The CSB uses the word “affliction.”
Is all suffering tribulation or affliction? No. Is all tribulation (or affliction) a form of suffering? Yes.
What these Christians were experiencing was focused persecution from both idol-worshiping pagan Gentiles who claimed Caesar as Lord and from unbelieving Christ-hating Jews.
Jesus knows their poverty
Closely linked to their tribulation was their poverty, their desperate economic situation, which seems to be a result of their tribulation and affliction.
Perhaps the believers in Smyrna were experiencing what Hebrews 10:32-34 describes:
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
Jesus tells the church in Smyrna that even though they are poor, they are actually rich. Did you notice that? Revelation 2:9: “I know . . . your poverty (but you are rich) . . .”
Hebrews 10:34 said something very similar: “you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” Why? Because they knew that they “had a better possession and an abiding one.”
In just a few carefully chosen words, “I know . . . your poverty (but you are rich),” Jesus is helping us to realign our perspective on money and possessions and property. To view this life the way that God views it: in light of eternity. To value what God values, rather than what the world values.
I’ve had some hard economic times in my life, but I’ve never lived in poverty. Still, I can imagine that it is not easy. In fact, it must be very difficult. But what does Jesus say to these believers who are experiencing poverty as a result of their uncompromising faith in him? He says that they are actually rich. What does he mean? How can he say that? What are these riches that he’s talking about?
In Luke 12:32-34 Jesus said:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
In Ephesians 3:8 Paul writes, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
And in 2 Corinthians 6:10 Paul writes that he and his coworkers are “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
The riches Jesus is talking about are heavenly riches, spiritual riches, even Christ himself and eternal life lived with him.
I won’t tell you what to do with your money and your possessions and your resources, because that would be to step over the line into legalism. But I would be remiss if I did not tell you what the Bible says about your money and your possessions and your resources.
Jesus knows they are being slandered
Recall from the introduction that Smyrna had a large Jewish population. Luke records in the book of Acts that Paul and other believers were experiencing ongoing persecution and opposition from Jews who did not accept that Jesus was the Christ.
The church in Smyrna was being slandered, spoken wrongfully and harmfully about, by “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
This is a strange statement. Who is Jesus referring to here? Here are several passages in the New Testament that help us interpret this statement:
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” (John 8:39-41)
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. (Romans 2:28-29)
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Galatians 3:7)
The Jews in Smyrna who were slandering the church may have been ethnic Jews, but they were not true, spiritual Jews.
So Jesus knows the present suffering of the church in Smyrna: their tribulation, their poverty, and the slander they are enduring.
Jesus knows what is to come
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. (Revelation 2:10)
In his omniscience and his sovereign control over all things, Jesus knows what is to come. He knows that some of the Christians in Smyrna will soon experience even greater and more focused tribulation and affliction, by being thrown into prison and even killed for their uncompromising faith in him.
God allowed Satan to unleash massive suffering and affliction on Job in an effort to undo Job’s faith in God, but it didn’t work.
In Luke 22:31-32 Jesus told Simon Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Peter was sifted like wheat, but he returned and strengthened his brothers and sisters. Consider his words in 1 Peter 1:3-7:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
As with the testing of Job and Peter, the devil is behind this increased persecution against the church in Smyrna, but only by permission of God. God effectively says to Satan, “This far, and no further.” God allows this tribulation for the testing of the Smyrnan believers’ faith. God allows suffering and affliction and tribulation in the lives of any and all of his people for the testing and proving and strengthening of their faith in him.
Jesus offers encouragement
Jesus told the church in Smyrna that this increased tribulation would last “ten days.”
We don’t know if this was a literal ten days or if it was symbolic. John Stott wrote that this is “a short, unspecified but restricted period.” Either way, it was not going to last long.
In the face of the increased tribulation and even death that they would soon experience Jesus offers them encouragement by promising two things.
1. The crown of life
The word translated “crown” in verse 10 is not a royal crown that a king or queen might wear, which we sometimes refer to as a “diadem.” Rather, it was a wreath of foliage awarded to someone who was victorious in an athletic contest. As Mounce says, “Its value lay not in itself but in what it symbolized.”
What this crown symbolizes is eternal life. “Be faithful unto death,” says Jesus, the one who died and came to life, the eternal one who is victorious over death. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
These are some of the most encouraging words to be found in the Bible. As I’ve said in the previous two sermons in this series, this is the message of Revelation. The book of Revelation is about Jesus Christ (1:1), and its message is to conquer, which means to endure, to persevere, to hold fast to Jesus. Do this all the way to your death, and you will receive the crown of life, everlasting life.
2. No second death
The second thing Jesus promises to the one who conquers, to the one who is faithful unto death, is to “not be hurt by the second death.”
There is more to this life than just this life. We do not cease to exist when we die a physical death. We continue to exist into eternity. What that existence is depends on whether or not we accept Jesus for who the Bible says he is, whether or not we repent, believe and trust in Jesus alone for our salvation.
For those who do, there is eternal life. For those who do not, there is only eternal death, what Jesus describes here as “the second death.” Revelation 20:14-15 says this about the second death:
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
And Revelation 21:5-8 says this about both eternal life and the second death:
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
What about us?
In the sermon two weeks ago on Revelation chapter 1 I said that the three threats to any church are persecution, error, and sin.
The church in Smyrna was a suffering, persecuted church because they were not a compromising church. There are churches and believers in many parts of the world who are experiencing daily what the church in Smyrna experienced. This is not the church in America. This is not our church.
The letter to the church in Smyrna is a searching letter, and it should lead us to search our hearts, examine our lives, and ask questions such as: Why are we not experiencing persecution and reproach and affliction? I am not saying that we should be looking for these things, or that we should be striving to be martyrs, but Paul did write to Timothy that, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
So why are we not experiencing persecution? Can we honestly say that we have not compromised our faith? Can we truthfully say that our values and perspectives are really and radically different from the world? Do people even know that we are Christians and what that means?
Part of being human is that we naturally want to avoid pain and suffering. We want others to like us and not to hate us. But listen to these words of Jesus in Luke 6:22-26:
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
I hope that you will think and ponder and meditate and pray on these things. They are important to Jesus. They must become important to us.