Revelation Part 5
2:8-11 – Smyrna
2 Samuel 24:1 / 1 Chronicles 21:1
About 40 miles north of the city of Ephesus lay the trading port city of Smyrna. Not as ancient as Ephesus, still, it was considered by the ancient world the most beautiful city in the Roman empire.
And both its history and its position in the Empire, has a lot to do with what the Church in Smyrna was facing when Jesus sent this letter to them – even as every Church in every place throughout history has been impacted by its history and location.
Roman cities had been building temples to their Emperors since 44 B.C. E., the first in honor of Julius Caesar. Originally as a means of recognizing Rome’s just and beneficent rule. It was a show of gratitude and loyalty, not truly religious.
The 1st of these was in Pergamum – which city we’ll deal with next.
60 years later when Augustus Caesar died, the Senate did something remarkable – they deified him – pronounced him a god. This became the custom thereafter for Emperors. And now Emperor worship took its steps toward becoming the official State religion.
In fact, in the year 29, Smyrna had been one of 7 major cities which competed for the right to build a temple to the then Emperor Tiberius – and won the contest and the coveted name: Temple Warden.
This all set the stage for Caligula when he took the throne in 37 C.E.
One day, he strode into the Senate and announced to them he had already been deified – and was a god right then and there. And, not only was he now a god, so was his horse!
And seeing Caligula was as brutal as he was insane – no one laughed. The cult of Emperor worship now took off in the Empire.
So here sits Smyrna – one of the most recognized seats of what is now the official state religion – and the Church in it has some hard choices to make. For part of being a good citizen, was the expectation that you would burn incense to the Emperor at appropriate times. To refuse to do so was not just anti-culture – it was anti-government. It was the height of not being politically correct.
Something which came with severe and painful consequences.
With that being the backdrop, let’s look at the short letter itself.
It follows the same pattern as all 7 of the letters.
I. (v. 8) THE APPEAL TO THE REVELATION OF CHRIST:
2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.”
Once again, the appeal here is to the revelation of Jesus we saw in chapter 1 and a briefer form of what was stated in 17–18 “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “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.”
In effect Jesus says: “Before I address anything else, let me remind you that I speak as the one who governs time – I am the 1st and the last – all of human history is wrapped up in me. Everything that exists, exists in relationship to Me. It all began in Me and it will end in Me.
Added to that, I also was a human being who died in persecution, but who is now alive forever more. I have absolute authority over life and death. Keep that in mind as you consider what I am about to say.”
II. (v. 9) THE DECLARATIONS: In this case, positive only, no negatives.
2:9 “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.”
2.1 TRIBULATION. I know it not only because I am omniscient; not only because I walk among the 7 golden lampstands even now as an up-close observer; but I know because I’ve endured tribulation too. “I’ve truly been there.”
The Smyrnan tribulation came down to two related things.
POVERTY. They were a poor church, made up of poor people. From the beginning of Christianity even till today, the Church is sometimes affluent – like the Church in Laodicea – and sometimes poor like the Church in Smyrna. There is no single standard for the financial state of Christ’s church that holds true in all places and at all times.
And since neither poverty nor riches are a measure of the spirituality or “success” of a church, that is true for individual Christians as well. Though in the present climate in the US, one would imagine financial success is THE measure of well being – inside and outside of the Church.
It is a lie.
For Jesus quickly adds, that tho He is well aware of their poverty, in fact, when weighed in a different scale – they are not poor, but “rich.”
The truth is, no man or woman can truly grow spiritually apart from this distinction informing their lives and decisions.
If Believers measure our blessedness on the scales of this life only, then we may as well pack it in. For not all, indeed probably not many who are Christ’s will ever have the financial success so many in the world seem to pursue and possess.
And what of it?
Jesus says He knows they are in material poverty – but then asks them to consider that there is a wealth the world knows nothing about – and that wealth, these poor Believers possess!
What a seduction it is for the Church in America, in this land of opportunity and affluence, to measure ourselves today by the same measure as those outside of Christ.
More, think about it in your own heart and mind. What is it that you imagine today, that if only you had it – THEN, you could consider yourself “RICH”?
If I only had: My health back; A relationship as I want it; An employment situation; Respect from a certain person or persons; Freedom from an undesirable circumstance; Prospect of a more certain future; The chance to pursue some particular fancy; – If I just had “X” – THEN, THEN I’d be “rich.”
It is at this point that all temptation to all sorts of things gets it power. When we, who have been bought by the blood of the Lamb of God…
Now have the forgiveness of sins…
The promise of the resurrection…
The promise of eternal life in the boundless felicities of Heaven…
Who have God’s Word with us…
Christ’s Spirit within us…
Christ’s Church around and with us…
Access to the very throne of God in prayer…
And the realization that as His, He takes our oppositions and redeems them as means to make us more and more like Himself…
But if only we had “X” – THEN, we’d be rich.
So Jesus says to them – Yes, I know your poverty Oh, but you ARE rich.
The great issue of sin and reconciliation to the God through the cross who made us and adopted us as His children is settled! With all of its eternal ramifications for all who believe!
Those in Christ can indeed say “we are rich” no matter what our outward circumstances – bar none.
Then directly related to this poverty – is the “slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
As the cult of Emperor worship escalated, and pressure was put on all people groups the Romans dominated to participate, only one group was eventually exempted from having to burn incense to the Emperor – The Jews. This, because despite any form of persecution or pressure, the Jews had remained absolutely obstinate in refusing to cave. The were so obstreperous, the government finally just threw up their hands and let them alone.
But here’s where the story runs deep. For the beginning decades, Christianity was seen as a Jewish sect. As such, they enjoyed the same exemption from Emperor worship the Jews did.
But as the rift between the Jews and the Christians widened, the Jews grew more and more anxious to stamp them out. And one way they began to do this was to make it clear to the government that these Jesus followers were NOT Jews in any sense of the word.
In fact, there is evidence they even made official complaints to the government so as to sever all ties with the Christians. Which would have the effect of making the Christians lose the exemption from Emperor worship they had enjoyed to date.
The types of slanders they would use to buttress their arguments were that Christians were cannibals, because at the Lord’s Supper they ate the flesh and blood of their ”God.”
That they were promiscuous because of their love feasts.
And above all, they were insurrectionists and traitors because they refused to burn incense and declare “Caesar is Lord” – but instead at their baptisms, would declare “Jesus is Lord.”
So losing their Jewish exemptions, they would then be virtually unemployable in a city known for its political and religious loyalty to Rome. They could hold no high positions or get any good jobs, but would be relegated to lives of slavery for the most part.
So what does Jesus counsel them in such a situation? How to compromise? How to skirt the system? How to overthrow the government? How to start a grass roots rebellion? How to win their persecutors over with cunning and guile? How to avoid the suffering being His will bring on? How to sue their foes better?
III. (v. 10) THE CALL: 3 Things.
2:10 “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.”
3.1 Do not fear what you are about to suffer.
Notice He does NOT say, “don’t fear because I’ll spare you from all the suffering if you just pray long enough and hard enough – and click your heels three times.”
DO NOT BE MOTIVATED BY THE FEAR OF MAN AND CIRCUMSTANCES, MORE THAN MOTIVATED BY FAITH IN WHO I AM AND WHERE THIS IS ALL GOING.
Do not fear: I am the first and the last – these things are all temporary.
DO NOT FEAR. Don’t be afraid of suffering.
I do not know about the Smyrnans, but I do know about our society and culture – and we are a people so averse to suffering in any capacity, that we inevitably have a pill, a program, a person or a product to relieve any and all discomforts when they come into our lives. Whether our suffering is physical, situational, psychological, emotional or anything else, we believe we deserve to be free from suffering under all circumstances. And probably – that God owes that to us. That if any suffering attends us, it means something is wrong and God must fix it.
Something IS wrong. We live in a fallen world with indwelling sin and an active enemy. But that is not going to change until Jesus comes.
The truth is no one ever grows in Christ beyond the level of discomfort we are willing to endure to do so.
I will never grow in endurance, without things to endure.
Learn forgiveness without people, offences and sins to forgive.
Gain patience without frustrations to face.
Develop sweetness without bitterness to refuse.
Exercise faith in Christ without things which outstrip my natural capacities.
Gain victory over temptation without the pain of denying myself.
So He simply says: DO NOT FEAR.
3.2 “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.”
Do not be unaware that the Devil is real, and seeks to savage God’s people.
It is one of the peculiar defects which afflicts those of us who have a strong and Biblically robust doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty in all things – to hold that doctrine to the virtual exclusion of acknowledging there is a Devil who is an active agent in the world today – and that he wickedly seeks to harm God’s people.
At the beginning of the service I had two parallel passages read from the Old Testament – both referring to very same event.
2 Samuel 24:1 “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1 “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. “
So which one is it? Is God working in this event or is Satan?
And this is vital for the Smyrnan Church and for us to grasp.
That God is always at work in and with His people for ultimate blessing, even when the Devil himself is hard at work seeking to hurt, discourage, and ravage God’s people.
And the reality is, whenever Christ’s people suffer persecution or marginalization due simply to being Christ’s and living as unto Him – Satan is always to be found involved.
Do not be fooled, the current climate of the continuing loss of religious rights under the shadow of the secular religion of materialism and the LGBTQ moral agenda has all the ear marks of the direct influence of Satan.
This is not a social or political problem, it is a spiritual problem. And the question for us is not – can we elect the right leaders or get the right Supreme Court Justices to protect us? The real question is: “Will we remain faithful in the face of it and endure?”
To hear some talk, one would think we need to change the lyrics of the hymn from “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” to: “My hope is built on nothing less than Donald Trump and viral texts!”
We cannot legislate against the Devil. We must persevere by faith.
No, we do not look behind every bush for his direct activity in every sorrow or suffering we endure – but when the Church is directly under such opposition – The Devil cannot be left out of the equation. It is a spiritual battle.
We do not have time to unpack the Isaiah passage we had read earlier, but there the point is that not only are God and Satan often at work in one and the same event, so too, people are as well. And we must trust Him as superintending all of these in inscrutable ways.
3.3 In light of this all then: REMAIN FAITHFUL. Death in this life cannot compare with the crown of life in the resurrection. Remember, I was dead, and now I am alive forever more!
And isn’t this the essence of faith? Believing the promises of God such that they inform how we respond to and endure such tribulation for Jesus’ sake.
IV. (v. 11) THE REMINDER:
2:11 “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.”
4.1 “Conquering” in Ephesus, meant recovering their first love by recovering the love of Christ.
Conquering for the Smyrnans will be staying true to Christ, even in the face of tribulation, poverty and death brought on by refusing to compromise with the World’s agenda.
One can endure the difficulty now, and enjoy eternal felicity, or one can opt for the ease now, and partake of eternal pain and suffering.
There is no third option.
Revelation being written near the end of the 1st century, as the evidence indicates, it would be less than 60 years later when Polycarp, the man who was Bishop of Smyrna – most likely at the time this letter Jesus’ letter was received by them – would be the very example of “remaining faithful unto death” – he was martyred at age 86 or more. He was a student of the Apostle John, and Irenaeus, his disciple, tells us that “Polycarp was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ”
After his death, the Church at Smyrna circulated a letter among the other churches so they could all get a sense of how this man died suffering the very things Jesus said would happen in Smyrna.
When given one last chance to repent and honor Caesar or face death he replied: “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong”, how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”
As he was to be burned at the stake he prayed: “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost.”
His crime? He refused to burn incense to Caesar.
His end? Eternal glory with His God and King – the one who said: “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.”