Revelation: The Culmination of Scripture – 04 (“The Letters to the Seven Churches – Smyrna”)
The third letter that John had to send to one of the churches in Asia Minor, was one that was addressed to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was situated almost due north from Ephesus at a distance of about 65 km. (now called Izmir). The city was exceptionally beautiful and large (ca. 200,000 pop.) and ranked with Ephesus and Pergamum as “First of Asia.” It was an important seaport that commanded the mouth of the Hermanus River Valley. Smyrna was a wealthy city where learning, especially in the sciences and medicine flourished. Smyrna repeatedly sided with Rome in different periods of history, and thus earned special privileges as a free city and self-governed town under Emperor Tiberius and his successors. Among the beautiful, paved streets traversing the city from east to west was the “Golden Street,” along which stood the temples of Apollo (god of the son), Asclepius (god of healing), and Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation), with the temples of Cybele (mistress of wild nature – symbolised by her constant companion, the lion), and Zeus (the god of the sky and ruler of the Olympian gods) at the other end.
Smyrna was also a centre for emperor cult and worship. Because the Christians in Smyrna refused to abide to worshipping the emperor, they were severely persecuted.
2. SCRIPTURE READING:
Rev.2:8-11 (ESV) ~ “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.’”
3. THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA (2:8-11):
The church in Smyrna receives the shortest letter and the warmest praise. It was probably founded by Paul during his third missionary journey, A.D. 53-56 (Acts 19:10).
The Receiver of the Letter (vs.8a): “…to the angel of the church in Smyrna.” Again, we see that this letter was addressed to the pastor of the church who on his turn had to read the letter to the rest if the church.
Christ’s Image (vs.8b): Yet again we get the same structure in this second letter as the case is with all seven letters. We find a beautiful description in vs.8b of Christ’s image. Who was speaking here – who is behind the words that John plotted down in this letter ~ “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.” This language repeats the eternity of the One who addresses this church, and on whom death had no hold. This letter was intended for the encouragement of the church at Smyrna. The tone of the whole letter indicates that there is forthcoming a period wherein they will be called upon to suffer death for the sake of Christ. In this they are asked to remain faithful, and if they do this they then will receive a crown of life. In 156 A.D., Polycarp was burned alive on the stake at the age of eighty-six as the “twelfth martyr in Smyrna” for not abiding to this rule. His words have echoed through the ages: “Eighty-six year have I served Christ, and He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
What was especially of importance to the believers in the church in Smyrna, was the fact that the One that they belong to is the Lord of history and the Creator. He is in control regardless of the appearances of evil. He who is “the First and the Last” is also the One “who died” and “came to life again.” This crucified and risen Jesus could offer them, the crown of life in a situation where they were also prosecuted and killed for their believe in Jesus Christ – He would protect them from the second death (vss.8, 10-11).
It is also very interesting that Christ uses this specific term to introduce Himself to the church. Keep in mind, that this city was full of gods and temples. The expression “the first and the last” and “the Living One,” also suggest the uniqueness of Christ. He stands in bold relief and total contrast to the non-gods of pagan idolatry. Isaiah, the well-known Old Testament prophet, speaking for the Lord, declared ~ “…I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no god” (Is.44:6). The Christian religion stands in a class by itself with reference to its concept of God, as manifested in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – no other religion can offer that.
Christ is also “the first and the last” with reference to the material universe. The pre-incarnate Lord was present at the creation event, and He was an active agent in the process. In Rev.3:14, Revelation, Jesus is also designated as “the beginning of the creation of God”.
On the other hand, it is also true that Jesus will bring the material universe to a conclusion at the time of His return. Note Paul’s declaration in 1 Cor.15:24-26 ~ “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
In 2 Pet.3 there is a discussion of Christ’s “coming” to render judgement. On that “day of the Lord” the “heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
Christ, as the Alpha and Omega, is the first and last in so many ways. He is the “author and finisher” of our faith (Hebr.12:2), signifying that He begins it and carries it through to completion. He is the totality, the sum and substance of the Scriptures, both of the Law and of the Gospel (Joh.1:1, 14). He is the fulfilling end of the Law (Matt.5:17), and He is the beginning subject matter of the Gospel of grace through faith, not of works (EPh.2:8-9). He is found in the first verse of Genesis and in the last verse of Revelation. He is the first and last, the all in all of salvation, from the justification before God to the final sanctification of His people. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end. Only God incarnate could make such a statement.
Christ’s Praise (vs.9): In vs.9 we read the following ~ “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.” The church in Smyrna was known for three things and the Lord is acquainted with these three things.
First, He knows their “afflictions” – a word translated “persecution” in vs.10. As we’ve already seen, this church existed in a time of harsh persecution, during which several members of the church were killed for their faith. Although the Roman Empire planned to destroy and blot out the Hebrew nation, the Christian Jews were not only persecuted by Rome, but also by the non-Christian Jews.
Second, the Christians in Smyrna were poor and the Lord knew all about this. We do not know why this church was so poor in such a prosperous city. Perhaps the high esteem in which the emperor cult was held in the city produced economic sanctions against Christians who refused to participate. In Smyrna, economic pressure may have been the first step toward persecution. Even today, loyalty to their Lord sometimes entails economic loss for Christians. The “First and the Last One” however, wants to assure them that He has everything under control and that poverty is only an outward thing and that the believer’s compensation and glory still lies ahead, because those who suffer for the sake of their obedience to the Lord will at the end of times receive their crown – their riches which will last for ever.
Third, the risen Lord also knows “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” A certain faction within the Jewish community (not the whole community) used malicious untruths (“slander”) to incite persecution of the impoverished Saints in Smirnoff. The expression, “they say that they are Jews but are not” shows that even though these men claimed descent from Abraham, they were not his true descendants because they did not have faith in Christ, the “Seed” of Abraham (Gal.3:16, 29). These unbelieving and hostile Jews probably view the Jewish Christians in Smyrna as heretics of the worst sort.
The expression, “but are of the synagogue of Satan” reveals for first time in Revelation the ultimate source of persecution of Christians – Satan. Many further references to the archenemy of the followers of Christ are found throughout the book (2:13; 3:9; 9:11; 12:9-10, 12; 13:4; 20:2, 7, 10). In fact, he is one of the principal actors in the apocalyptic drama. While Satan is the author of persecution and wicked men are his instruments, God remains sovereign in that He will give “the crown of life” to those who are “faithful,” even to the point of death (vs.10). “Synagogue of Satan” refers, then, to certain hostile Jews in ancient Smyrna who, motivated by Satan, slander the church there.
Christ’s Rebuke: As already mentioned, this church in Smyrna, together with the church in Philadelphia, did not receive any rebuke from Christ.
Christ’s Counsel (vs.10a): Christ’s command or counsel followed immediately after His praise, because there were no words of rebuke uttered. The prospect of further and imminent (Afrikaans: “onafwendbare”) suffering may have made the believers in Smyrna fearful ~ “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 (vs.10a). The risen Christ reveals that some of them will be imprisoned by the Devil in order to test them, and they will have ten days of persecution – whether by Jews or pagans is not stated. The testing will show where their true loyalty lies. Christ offers a faithful and suffering church further trial and suffering, even “to the point of death.” The “ten days” may be the actual days, or it may be a Jewish expression that pointed to an indeterminate (Afrikaans: “onbepaalde”) but short period of time. In the first-century Roman world, prison was usually not correctional but the prelude to trial and execution, hence the words ~ “…be faithful, even to the point of death.”
Christ’s Promise (vs.10b-11): The general exhortation or Christ’s promise, is identical to those in the other letters ~ “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.” What is interesting though, is that Christ warns this church, before He comforts them.
Christ gives a twofold promise in vss.10b-11 ~ “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.” For those who would face martyrdom out of loyalty to Christ, there was to be a “crown of life” given by Christ Himself. This reminds us of the words of James in James 1:12 ~ “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (also see 1 Pet.5:4).
Christ also warns the Christians in Smyrna not to trust in “self-created hope” – trust that is not based on the Word of God – such hope usually leads to disillusionment. The hope that Christ offers however, is realistic and honest and face realities – it offers true hope – not false hope. It is in the light of this truth that He says in vs.10b ~ “and for ten days you will have tribulation.”
Christ warns them that the persecution that lied ahead of them would be terrible in comparison with what they were experiencing at that stage. It seems harsh and hard and insensitive to tell that even harder times are coming, but the Truth empowered and prepared them for reality rather than believing in false images of victory which is not reality.
The Lord appeals to them to… ~ “…be faithful unto death.” It is important to note that this faithfulness do not terminate when the persecution is over, it is a calling until death (Afrikaans: “getrouheid geld nie net vir tye van vervolging nie, maar moet voortduur tot die dag van ons dood”). This also implies that persecution and trials must be withstood without murmuring, or to compromise your faith and love for Christ. If you remain faithful, you will receive the “crown of life” ~ “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
The second promise however, is that those who overcome trials and tribulation and martyrdom, will not be hurt or harmed by the second death. The first death is physical death (the separation of body and soul at the end of our present life), and this, of course, is something that Christians are not exempt from. Indeed, it is something we may even have to meet violently, as many in the seven churches did, and so have many of the Lord’s servants down the ages since and right up to our own day. But the second death (absolute separation for ever from the God who is the Fountain of life, joy and everything that is lovely and desirable) cannot touch or hurt the Christian. Why? We are secure in our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ! It is the doctrine of our union with Christ!
4. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
Very important is that we as believers must realise that four realities from this letter are also applicable on our lives:
We must realise that we as believer’s can experience long term trial and tribulations – we are not guaranteed of the absence, or momentary instances of suffering.
The source of all tribulations and suffering, is to be found in the Evil one. Since the Fall he was and is a murderer of mankind. Listen to what Jesus says in John 8:44 ~ “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.”
Suffering never takes place without a purpose. Suffering will always be a reminder to us, of the awfulness of sin which we have to cope with and the purpose of that, is that we must focus on God’s grace and mercy.
Our suffering will not last forever – for a long period of time maybe, but not forever, that is why the Lord said in vs.10 ~ “…for ten days you will have tribulation.” It will not last forever – “vasbyt”! The figure “ten” can also points us towards a figure of fulness (Afrikaans: “volheidsgetal”) or towards God’s sovereignty in allowing tribulation in our lives.
Therefore beloved, always rejoice in suffering; in hardship; in trials and tribulations!