Most Christians would prefer that suffering and especially persecution be an elective course. We don’t like Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:12 that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We would just as soon avoid the topic and experience all together.
This is precisely why we need to learn from Christ’s letter to the church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11). The letter to the church in Smyrna reminds us that when we face persecution, we should remember that the one who conquered death promises us eternal life.
The Church (8a) – Not much is known about the church. There is no record how Christianity came to Smyrna. It was most likely planted during the time the apostle Paul ministered in Ephesus (Acts 19).
The City (8a) – Smyrna was a large and wealthy city about 35-40 miles north of Ephesus. Smyrna is still a large seaport known as Izmir with a present population of about 200,000. In all of Asia, there was no more beautiful city than Smyrna—at least, if one wishes to accept the judgment of the citizens of Smyrna. Their coins had the inscription, “first city of Asia in size and beauty.”
They had a land-locked and protected harbor. The city began at sea level and climbed, even as it does today, up the slopes of Mount Pagus. The city planners laid out the architecture to make it blend together. As you stood at the sea harbor looking up toward the top of Mount Pagus, you could see a panorama that led it be called “a crown.” The winding thoroughfare, “the street of gold,” ascending Mount Pagus passed the magnificent temples to Cybele, Apollo, Aesculapius, Aphrodite, and toward the top a notable shrine to Zeus. The winding thoroughfare looked like a necklace of jewels around the neck of a statue.
Smyrna was known as a center of learning, especially in science and medicine. Smyrna claimed to be the birthplace of Homer.
The name, Smyrna, means “bitter,” and was associated with myrrh, the fragrant plant used in anointing oil and the process of embalming. It was associated with death and suffering.
The city was known for its wickedness and opposition to the gospel. Life was difficult and dangerous for the church in Smyrna. Under the emperor Domitian, it became a capital offense to refuse the yearly sacrifice to the emperor.
The Character of Christ (8b) – Jesus presents himself as the one who has power of time (the first and the last), and the power over sin (the one who died and came back to life). The fact that Jesus was persecuted and resurrected would be especially relevant to a church experiencing severe persecution. This will be just what the persecuted saints in Smyrna need in order to carry on.
The Condition of the Church (9) – Jesus comforts them by saying that he knows about their suffering. “Afflictions” refers to extensive tribulation rather than mere affliction. “Poverty” refers to extreme poverty. They most likely lost possessions, land, income, etc., because of persecution. Despite their physical poverty, Jesus reminds them that they were rich in the things of the spirit.
They were being persecuted not only by pagan Gentiles but also by hostile Jews and ultimately Satan himself. The believers in Smyrna were being falsely accused which caused them to be arrested. During the first and second centuries, believers were slandered for various reasons:
- Cannibalism – “eating the body” and “drinking the blood” of the Lord
- Immorality & incest – calling each other “brother” and “sister”; giving a “holy kiss”; participating in “love feasts.”
- Atheism – refusing to accept the Greek or Roman gods
- Political disloyalty – unwillingness to pay homage to Caesar as lord
- Arsonists – spoke of the fire of the Spirit and the fires of divine judgment
- Splitting families – Jewish families would disown those who became Christians
There is no rebuke for these faithful, suffering Christians. Of the seven churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia escape criticism. Suffering, though extremely difficult, helps to keep believers pure in faith and life.
The Command (10a) – Jesus exhorts them to have courage; not to be afraid of future suffering. This is probably a message they were dreading. The suffering is about to get worse. They were facing a season of persecution which would include imprisonment and possibly death. It would be short in duration (10 days). Suffering does not prove God is powerless. This particular suffering comes because has determined to test the church. While painful, God’s testing has a good goal.
Suffering can be expected for the ungodly, but why should the godly suffer?
- Discipline – 1 Corinthians 11:30-32
- Preventive – 2 Corinthians 12:7
- Teach what we can’t learn otherwise
- Learn obedience – Hebrews 5:8
- Develop character – Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4
- Provide a better testimony – Acts 9:16
The Consequences (10b) – Jesus promises the crown of life to those who endure persecution. This is not the crown of royalty. This is the victor’s crown, given to an athlete who was victorious in an athletic contest. The crown symbolizes eternal life.
Up to this point, no one had died, but it could be expected. 50+ years later, Polycarp, who was bishop of the church in Smyrna, was martyred, and undoubtedly others were killed as well. When Polycarp was about to be martyred and told to recant his faith in Christ, he said, “Four score and six years have I served the Lord and he never wronged me: How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?”
The Challenge (11a) – Take the message to heart. Hear and heed the message.
The Commitment (11b) – There is the promise given to overcomers that they will not be hurt by the second death. The first death is physical, the second is spiritual. We don’t need to be afraid of losing our life when persecuted because our future in heaven is secure. The believers were not promised escape from tribulation or persecution. They were promised something far greater—the grace to endure afflictions without fear and the pledge that the one who died and came to life again will certainly bring them through to the crown of life.
Principles – (1) Those who follow Jesus faithfully can expect opposition/persecution. (2) It costs to be a dedicated Christian, in some places more than others. (3) The great Christian hope is not removal from trouble but resurrection from the dead.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA, on January 21, 2018. It is part of a series on The State of the Church. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.