Read: Revelation 2:8-11
In the 2009 season of Britain’s Got Talent, a 47-year old Scottish woman by the name of Susan Boyle made television history. When Susan walked out on the stage, there was not a person in the auditorium who was impressed by what they saw, including the panel of judges. Her hair was gray and thin, her clothes were unstylish and frumpy, and she was a bit overweight. She certainly did not look like she had talent!
She told the skeptical crowd that her dream in life was to be a singer. The cameras panned the audience as some chuckled and others rolled their eyes at her naïveté. But then the music started, and she began to sing I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables. Within moments, this frumpy former cook from the small town of Blackburn, Scotland had the crowd in her hands, including the judges. She eventually won the competition and since then has released eight albums, sold 20 million, and now has a net worth of $40 million!
The story of Susan Boyle teaches us that looks can be deceiving. In America, we tend to measure the success of a church based on external criteria. As the adage states: we count nickels and noses. We are often impressed by the size of buildings, the state of our budgets, and the number on our attendance boards. If your offerings and numbers are up, you are a success. If they are down, you have failed. But remember: looks can be deceiving.
Jesus’ evaluation is the only one that matters.
This was certainly the case for the church in Smyrna. By all the standards of earthly evaluation, this church did not measure up. Others looked on and said that this church was poor. But Jesus’ evaluation is the only one that matters. He looked at this church and saw beyond their poverty and called them rich. Of the seven churches addressed in Rev. 2-3, only Smyrna and Philadelphia did not receive any criticism from the Christ of the Church. Remember: looks can be deceiving.
1. The City and the Church: Smyrna (v. 8a)
Smyrna was located about 35 miles up the coast due north of Ephesus. Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, scholars agree that Smyrna was the most splendid and prosperous. It was often called the “Pride of Asia.”
We have no biblical information as to how this church was founded. There is no mention of this church in the book of Acts or any of the epistles. Since Smyrna was so close to Ephesus, and the Ephesian church was a hub for missionary activity in the entire region, it is highly likely that this church was planted as a result of the work in Ephesus.
2. The Christ of the Church (v. 8b)
In his letter to the church, Christ identifies himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” As we mentioned in the previous sermon, Christ reveals himself to each church in ways that are unique to their context and specific problems. Why did he reveal himself this way to the church in Smyrna? As we will soon discover, this church was facing severe trials, and as a result, they needed some encouragement.
Christ reveals himself to each church in ways that are unique to their context and specific problems.
There are times when churches need to be rebuked. There are times when churches need to be challenged. But there are times when churches need to be encouraged. And what better encouragement than a picture of our eternal, resurrected Lord!
Jesus is “the first and the last.” This title is also used in Rev. 1:17: Jesus is the protos and the eschatos. In Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12 this title is also used to describe Yahweh. All the attributes of deity are ascribed to the Christ of the Church just as they are ascribed to Yahweh. Jesus is sovereign and eternal. Jesus is Yahweh!
This means that Christ is in control. He is not only sovereign over history, he is sovereign over what is happening right now. Because he is God, he knows what the church is facing. Nothing takes him by surprise. What an encouragement this must have been to a disheartened church.
Furthermore, Jesus is the one “who died and came back to life.” While the first title bears witness to his deity, the second bears witness to both his deity and humanity. As a man, Jesus knows full well what it is to experience trials and suffering, even to the point of death. And as a result, he can sympathize with them in their weaknesses (cf. Heb. 4:15). At the same time, the fact that Christ conquered death by his resurrection guarantees their ultimate victory, despite how defeating their circumstances may have seemed (cf. 1 Cor. 15). The Christ of the Church is the eternal God and the resurrected Lord.
3. The Sufferings They Endured for Christ (v. 9)
Jesus is fully aware of their suffering and tribulation. Like most cities in the ancient Roman world, it was dangerous to be a follower of Christ. As a result of their devotion, they suffered. How did they suffer?
First, they suffered politically (v. 9a, “I know your tribulation…”). The Greek word for tribulation is the word thlipsin. According to Strong’s, the word means “pressure” or “affliction.” “It carries the challenge of coping with the internal pressure of a tribulation, especially when feeling there is no way of escape.” The force of circumstances was trying to “crush” the Christianity out of them.
Their sufferings and trials are not specific, but we have a fairly good idea of the sufferings they probably encountered. The early church faced these pressures. What were they?
The early church faced the pressure of Christ over Caesar. In 195 BC, a temple to Roma was built in Smyrna. Roma was a female deity who personified the city of Rome, and more broadly, the Roman state. Smyrna had a reputation for having a passionate loyalty to Rome. Her citizens were required to sprinkle incense before the statue of Roma. To refuse was considered an act of treason.
The early church also faced the pressure of Jewish opposition. For some reason, this aspect of persecution is often overlooked. Take a look in the book of Acts and you will soon discover the pressure the early church faced, not so much from Rome, but from the Jews who rejected Christ:
- Peter and John are arrested by the Jews, questioned by the religious authorities, and then flogged (Acts 4-5).
- Stephen is arrested, questioned before the Sanhedrin, and stoned to death which causes the first mass-scale persecution of the church (Acts 6).
- Saul, who witnessed and approved of Stephen’s death, receives permission from the Jewish authorities to imprison believers (Acts 8-9).
- The Jews plot to kill Paul after his conversion (Acts 9, 20, 23).
- Herod executes James and imprisons Peter (Acts 12).
- Paul and Barnabus are driven out of Antioch (Acts 13).
- The Jews and Gentiles form an unlikely bond and attempt to stone Paul and Barnabus (Acts 14).
- In the second part of Acts 14 Jews nearly stone Paul to death.
- In 2 Cor. 11:23-26 Paul declares that he had been persecuted by the Jews on numerous occasions.
The church in Smyrna faced tribulation and pressure from all sides. They were not exempt from the trials and sufferings others faced. Neither are we today.
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
And sailed through bloody seas? (Issac Watts)
Second, they suffered economically (v. 9b, “I know…your poverty…”). According to William Barclay, there are two Greek words for poverty. One word describes someone who has nothing to spare or nothing extra. The second word describes one who has nothing at all, and that is the word that is used here. This shows just how impoverished they were. The contrast between the city and the church was remarkable. Economically, the city of Smyrna was flourishing, but no doubt because of their faith, this church was absolutely destitute and impoverished.
I’ve often wondered what would happen to the church in America if our faith in Christ began to affect us in the pocketbook. The day may be coming in America where it hits us in our bank accounts to be a believer. If that day comes, I pray that we will face those trials with unswerving faith, like the church in Smyrna.
Third, they suffered maliciously (v. 9c, “I know…the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”). The early church faced malicious slander. In their observance of the Lord’s Supper, they were accused of cannibalism. Their fellowship meals were called Agape or love feasts, and as a result, Christians were accused of orgies and lust. Because following Christ meant that some had to choose Christ over their families, the church was accused of being anti-family. The Romans could not fathom a religion that had no images, idols, or gods thus the church was accused of atheism. Moreover, the Romans accused the church of treason and political disloyalty because they refused to confess that “Caesar is Lord.”
It is no wonder then that Jesus says the Jews who slander them belong to the “synagogue of Satan.” These Jews learned their ways from their master who is called the devil in v. 10. Literally, the word devil means the accuser or the slanderer. “In John 8:44, Jesus calls the devil a liar and the father of lies and all his followers share his distaste of the truth (Stott).”
Fourth, they suffered physically (v. 10b, “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison…”). The disciples were no strangers to the prisons. If you look closely you might even find inscribed on the walls: “Paul was here.” For followers of Christ, prison was more than punitive—the next phase was usually execution. All over the Roman empire, prison cells were sanctified by their prayers and the darkness of their prison cells was illuminated by the presence of the risen Christ.
Fifth, they suffered mortally (v. 10c, “Be faithful unto death…”). Beyond the malicious lies that were spread about them and even beyond the threat of prison, death was a real possibility for those who belonged to this church. In fact, one of the church’s earliest and most memorable martyrs came from Smyrna: Polycarp.
Polycarp was born in 69 AD and died at the age of 86 in 155 AD. This means that if Revelation was written around 90 AD, as many scholars claim, Polycarp would have been in his early twenties and most likely a member of the church in Smyrna when Revelation was written. Whatever the case, we do know that he was a disciple of John and later bishop of Smyrna.
In 155 AD, Polycarp was captured and told that, if he recanted his faith, he would be spared. The officer in charge had no stomach to see an old man die and said to Polycarp, “What harm can it do to sacrifice to the emperor? Swear by Caesar and I will release you; revile Christ.” Polycarp replied: “For 86 years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
As they gathered wood for the pyre, Polycarp stood by the stake and prayed: “Almighty God, the Father of your beloved son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you. I think you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the number of your martyrs.”
The fire was lit, but the wind kept the pyre from burning and prolonged his suffering. Finally, in an act of mercy, a soldier put an end to his misery with a sword through his heart. I wonder if in those final moments Polycarp remembered the words of Christ to the church at Smyrna: “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life”?
4. The Comfort They Received From Christ
When a church is suffering it needs comfort and encouragement. Sprinkled throughout these verses, this is exactly what our Lord gives them. The Christ of the Church reveals seven truths about himself that brings comfort to the discouraged heart:
First, take comfort in knowing that Christ is eternal (v. 8a, “The words of the first and the last…”). Because Jesus is eternal, he is sovereign and in control regardless of the circumstances.
Second, take comfort in knowing that Christ is victorious (v. 8b, “…who died and came to life”). Man lives and dies; Christ died and lived! The one who became obedient to death, even death on a cross (cf. Phil. 2:8), appeals to his followers to be faithful even to the point of death (v. 10). Even the threat of death should hold no terror for those who truly believe that Jesus conquered it.
Even the threat of death should hold no terror for those who truly believe that Jesus conquered it.
Third, take comfort in knowing that Christ is all-knowing (v. 9a, “I know your tribulation…”). Jesus knows because he is God, but he is also pictured in Revelation as the One who walks among the lamp-stands (the church). Jesus walks among the church and is fully aware of every battle, every trial, every prayer request, and every struggle we face. He has a close, personal, and intimate knowledge of the Church and your church.
Jesus knows all about our struggles,
He will guide till the day is done;
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus–
No, not one! no, not one! (Johnson Oatman)
Fourth, take comfort in knowing that Christ has perspective (v. 9, “I know your poverty…(but you are rich)”). The values that Jesus has and his perspective on the church are vastly different from the world. For example, the church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) was an extremely wealthy church. Others looked at that church and called them rich. But not Jesus. He called them poor (3:17). Smyrna was a church that others probably looked at and called poor. But not Jesus. He called them rich.
Jesus looks beyond nickels and noses; he sees beyond buildings and budgets. He sees the true condition of the church. A church with holiness, power, love, joy, grace, and peace is a “rich” church regardless of what the critics may say. Even if a church is facing persecution, if they have these characteristics, they are a rich church!
Fifth, take comfort in knowing that Christ is in control (v. 10c, “…that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation”). “Ten days” is not to be taken literally. It is an expression that means a short time. In other words, the sufferings of Smyrna have an expiration date! The Christ of the Church set a limit to their sufferings. The same is true for us.
Sixth, take comfort in knowing that Christ is purposeful (v. 10c, “…that you may be tested…”). Satan tempts us and tests us to destroy us. God tests us to purify and refine us. Just as gold is purified of dross in the furnace, the fires of suffering can refine our faith and strengthen our character. There is always a profit and purpose to our pain.
God tests us to purify and refine us.
Seventh, take comfort in knowing that Christ is generous (v. 10d-11, “…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”).
After each church is addressed, Jesus ends with a promise of an appropriate reward. Jesus promises two rewards here:
(1) Jesus promises the crown of life. For a church facing the threat of death, he promises life. The crown of life is given to those who persevere (cf. James 1:12).
(2) Jesus promises that the one who overcomes will not be hurt by the “second death.” What is the second death? It is mentioned four times in Revelation and is synonymous with the lake of fire. It speaks of final separation from God—thus it is death. It is referred to as the “second” death because it is subsequent to physical death, which is the “first.”
What a comforting promise this must have been the church in Smyrna. The persecutors may take their lives here on this earth and kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul (cf. Matt. 10:28). Every believer will face the first death, but we will never face the second one and we should never fear the second death.
In his book, The Mind of Christ, Dr. Dennis Kinlaw tells the following story: Until a few years ago, the Romanian Communist Party was one of the most brutal in the world. As a Christian pastor, Josef Tson spoke out on some issues and angered the government. So they decided to destroy him. They came in and stripped his library of all his books. Two books were quite worn and had no jackets on them, so the soldiers left them behind. One was Martin Niemoller’s account of his sufferings under Adolf Hitler. The other was Abundant Living, a devotional book by E. Stanley Jones. This Romanian pastor put Martin Niemoller’s book on his nightstand to give him strength through the night. He put E. Stanley Jones’ book on the shelf in his study.
The government then sent the police to interrogate Josef five days a week, and up to seven hours a day. The intent was to destroy him. Oftentimes they would interrogate him with a loaded pistol on the table in front of the interrogator. One day, after a very grueling period of questioning, Josef went into the study, locked the door, and fell to the floor, sobbing. He said, “God, I can’t take it anymore.”
He thought he heard a voice. The voice said, “Josef, get up. Read the book on the shelf.”
Josef said there was no problem knowing which book to read; there was only one left! So he pulled down E. Stanley Jones’ book and opened it. The devotional for that day was on “How to Live Above Your Circumstances.” It was about Jesus facing the cross. Jones said Jesus did not resist the cross. But he embraced the cross.
Josef said, “God, you surely don’t mean I’m supposed to embrace my interrogators!”
“Yes,” the Lord said, “that’s exactly what I mean.”
“Well, God, if you want me to do that, you must do something in my heart that you’ve never done before.”
Josef said that’s exactly what the Lord did. He walked back into the interrogation room, ready to embrace his trial. He said the change in the atmosphere was almost comical. Before that time, the pastor had been in trauma; but now the chief interrogator was in trauma because he had lost control of the subject! The chief interrogator was beside himself. He finally spun in anger on the pastor and said, “You are stupid. I guess I will just have to go ahead and kill you.”
Josef said, “I understand, sir. That’s your ultimate weapon. When everything else has failed, you can always kill. But you know, I have an ultimate weapon too. And when you use your ultimate weapon, I get to use mine.”
“And what’s your ultimate weapon?” the communist angrily demanded.
“Your ultimate weapon is to kill,” Josef said. “Mine is to die. When I die, I will be much better off. But your troubles will just be beginning. You see, every tape of every sermon that I have ever preached will be sprinkled with my blood. So you’ll have much more trouble with me dead than you have with me alive!” So they let him go!
Years later Pastor Tson reflected: “I remember how for many years, I had been afraid of dying. I had kept a low profile. I wanted so badly to live and I wasted my life in inactivity. As long as I tried to save my life, I was losing it; now that I was willing to lose it, I found it. I discovered that when I was pulling every string to try to save my life, I was at my wit’s end, but when I turned the strings loose and let Christ control my life completely, I was free.”
Far too many believers are afraid of dying. Perhaps not so much a physical death in our context, but a social one. But in the end, we have the same choice as Pastor Tson: We can keep a low profile and waste our life with inactivity, or we can place our lives on his altar, and decide we’re ready to love him, live for him, and die for him if necessary.
The words of Jesus are still true: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
Since I must fight if I would reign,
Increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word. (Issac Watts)