The Suffering Church (Smyrna)
Jesus chose seven churches in seven cities as recipients of a message of hope. He gave the visions described in the book of Revelation to the Apostle John, who then made seven copies to give to each of these churches.
In addition to the main body of the letter, John was to include messages to each of the individual congregations. These short epistles are recorded in Revelation 2–3.
The seven churches are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. They are all arranged in a circle in western Anatolia. Anatolia today is encompassed by the modern nation of Türkiye, but in the Roman Empire was called Asia Minor.
Asia Minor first received the Gospel from the Apostle Paul on his first and second missionary journeys. During that time, he helped establish the largest church in the region in Ephesus. Laodicea is very close to Colosse and Paul mentioned the church there a few times in the book of Colossians. Other than that, the other five congregations in Revelation 2–3 are not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture.
Although Ephesus and Laodicea were very faithful at one time, they have both lost their zeal.
To Ephesus Jesus says,
“But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place — unless you repent.” (Rev 2:4-5)
and to Laodicea,
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” (Rev 3:15-16)
These old congregations that at one time stood up for the truth and were passionate about serving God had become cold, apathetic, and lazy.
Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis were younger congregations, but they weren’t much better.
In fact, only two of the seven congregations are described in a totally positive way: Smyrna and Philadelphia.
This morning I want to look at one of those, the church in Smyrna, read Jesus’s letter to it, and discover what we here in Hondo can learn from them.
First, let’s read the letter itself.
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this:
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say 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 cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until 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. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” (Rev 2:8-11)
As you can see, Jesus doesn’t critique these Christians at all, but simply warns them of coming persecution and encourages them to stay faithful.
He begins by addressing the congregation’s “angel”. Each letter begins this same way. The “angels” mentioned in chapters two and three are most likely not what we think of as angels or angelic beings, but simply messengers or representatives of the various congregations. Perhaps they are the preachers for the respective churches, or one of the elders, or even just messengers sent to collect the letters from John on Patmos.
Next, Jesus refers to Himself, not by name, but using a special title. Again, each of the seven letters uses this format and includes a different title. In chapter one, when John saw the vision of Jesus, these titles were all presented in some way.
With Smyrna, Jesus uses the title “The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life.”
This calls our minds back to 1:17–18 — “I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
What does Jesus mean by this? First, He means that He is God. “The First and the Last” is a title which can only be applied to God.
“Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
‘I am the first and I am the last,
and there is no God besides Me.’ ” (Isa 44:6)
The one who is first and last is eternal. He is in control. He existed before our problems began and will still be here after they’re long gone.
The rest of the title also reflects the hope Jesus wants to instill in these believers. “Who was dead and has come to life.” This letter mentions over and over the concept of the resurrection. Jesus emphasizes resurrection because, quite frankly, some of these Christians are going to die for their faith.
All around them, society was placing pressure on the Christians to just give in and accept the norms. As we watch American culture become more and more sinful, know that we aren’t the first Christians to feel the pressure. In verse 9, Jesus uses this word “tribulation” or “affliction.” Social values were different from Christ’s values both then and now.
A church that refuses to give up Christ and give way to cultural values will feel affliction.
Sometimes we say that the Roman Empire persecuted Christians. This is true…somewhat. They did at various times and places persecute Christians directly. Most of the prosecution, however, didn’t come directly from the government. It came from their social peers.
The Roman Empire mostly valued peace. They required all people in the Empire to worship the Emperor except a few very old religions, who were excused. One of these was the Jewish religion—as long as they paid a special tax called the Fiscus Iudaicus in the synagogues.
The Christians were considered Jews by the Roman government and actually would be protected by this law as well. However, they could not pay the tax, as they were obviously unwelcome in the synagogues. The Jews who hated the Christians were able to turn them in to the authorities, and have them punished.
Here we see the significance of Jesus’s remark in verse 9:
“I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Rev 2:9)
The Jews should have been God’s people still. God had given them His law so they would be prepared for the Messiah and He had taken care of them for years, but they were unwilling to accept Christianity.
The people most responsible for persecuting the Christians were those who should have been their brothers. This happens today too. Much of the cultural assimilation that happens among God’s people is the result of those who have acclimatized to the world yet claim to be Christians. There are “those who say they are Christians and are not, but are a church of Satan.”
The Christians in Smyrna are about to suffer.
They have surely already suffered, but it’s nothing compared to what’s coming.
I am not the kind of person who likes conspiracy theories. I don’t believe in fearmongering. Additionally, I’m not a prophet. But I know things will get worse in this country. There is persecution now, but it will absolutely get worse.
“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.” (2 Tim. 3:1–5)
When Paul speaks of “the last days,” he doesn’t mean the end of time, but the latter days of the Jewish nation. This devolution of morals isn’t unique to the first century, nor the persecution resulting from it. Paul continues:
“…persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me! Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:11–12)
Now, this suffering is said to last “ten days.” What does that mean? First, it’s only a short time. It’s not going to last forever. Second, notice how it says they were to be “tested” during this time. Perhaps this was meant as a reminder of Daniel and his ten-day test in the royal court (Daniel 1).
“Please test your servants for ten days, and let us be given some vegetables to eat and water to drink. “Then let our appearance be observed in your presence and the appearance of the youths who are eating the king’s choice food; and deal with your servants according to what you see.”
So he listened to them in this matter and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food. (Dan 1:12–15)
Daniel and his friends were tested: would they give in to the culture or would they stay faithful to God? Additionally, they were tested to see what the effect of their values was. After the testing was complete, the king’s guard was impressed. He thought little of Daniel at first, but came to see how much better God’s way was.
In the same way, Christians (including those in Smyrna) were thought of as primitive and foolish, but when pagans saw their faith and joy and peace, they were impressed and many converted.
Less than 50 years after the Smyrna church of Christ received their letter from Jesus, one of their elders was killed.
His name was Polycarp.
Polycarp actually knew the Apostle John, and perhaps he was the messenger of the church mentioned in verse 8. We have an account of his martyrdom, and reading it reminds one certainly of this letter.
Here are some of the things he said before he died:
“Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Mart. Pol. 9:3)
“Thou threatenest that fire which burneth for a season and after a little while is quenched: for thou art ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why delayest thou? Come, do what thou wilt.” (Mart. Pol. 11:2)
“Leave me as I am; for He that hath granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pile unmoved, even without the security which ye seek from the nails.” (Mart. Pol. 13:3)
I’m sure the words of this letter helped him in those final moments.
Lastly, in verses 10–11, note the reward: eternal life, never to be tarnished with the second death.
There’s really not much we can do to feel better about suffering, except to know a few things:
- Our suffering is temporary.
- Our faith may shine Christ’s light.
- Our death will be overturned.
- We will be greatly rewarded for our faithfulness.