Today, I want to continue with our study of Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Revelation by taking a look at what was said to the church of Smyrna.
Smyrna was an Ancient Greek city located at a central and strategic point on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. This place is known today as Izmir, Turkey. Due to its advantageous port conditions, its ease of defense and its good inland connections, Smyrna rose to prominence. As one of the principal cities of Roman Asia, Smyrna vied with Ephesus and Pergamum for the title “First City of Asia.” There was a Christian church here from a very early time, probably originating in the considerable Jewish colony. A mob of Jews and pagans abetted the martyrdom of Polycarp in AD 153. Christian tradition tells us that Polycarp was a disciple of John and was ordained as bishop in Smyrna by John the apostle. He was burned at the stake and stabbed through the heart because he refused to burn incense to the Roman emperor.
As far as the message to the church, it is interesting to note that the message to the church at Smyrna begins with the same comment by Jesus that each message does:
I know your works.
Jesus is telling each church (and us) that He intimately knows how we live – what we use our energy on. It is important for us to know that, while people may be fooled by the outside front we put on for others, Jesus is not. He is acquainted with how we truly live our lives.
As the Lord continues with His message, we find out some things about the church in Smyrna.
The church in Smyrna may not have been the most successful looking church from the outside and might not have been one attractive to join. It was a church which was undergoing tribulation.
Tribulation – thlípsis – properly, pressure (what constricts or rubs together), used of a narrow place that “hems someone in”; tribulation, especially internal pressure that causes someone to feel confined (restricted, “without options”).
The church at Smyrna was under tremendous pressure, with seemingly no options for escape. This was probably occurring due to the persecution of the church by Roman authorities. It is believed and backed up by Jesus’ message that the persecution was brought on by unbelieving Jews who incited the Roman authorities against the church.
Two interesting notations are made by Jesus about these unbelieving Jews:
While it is rarely disputed that these persecutors were ethnic Jews, Jesus says that they are not truly Jews. This reminds me of the revelation given by the apostle Paul in the book of Romans:
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. 2:28-29
The apostle Paul wrote these words after telling us that there is no partiality with God; Gentiles who worship Him and live godly lives will be accepted and unbelieving Jews will not be.
Jesus said another interesting thing as well: He equated the actions of the unbelieving Jews with that of Satan. Scripturally, actions that are of the flesh are no different to Jesus than actions directly from Satan. When Saul of Tarsus was persecuting believers in Jesus and was confronted by the Lord on the Damascus road, Jesus said these words:
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Acts 9:4
Attacks against God’s people are attacks against Jesus!
Jesus also tells us that the church in Smyrna was in poverty. This word is used to describe being without physical resources. While we are not sure as to why, this could have been a result of the persecution they were enduring.
So, this was a church enduring intense pressure and in financial need.
Could it have been easy to judge this church as having problems? Or, as a church that God had abandoned?
Jesus said they were rich! We must be careful about our opinions of what is happening and not use unbiblical standards to judge a people!
How much money do they have? Are they growing numerically? Are they being well spoken of?
If this wasn’t enough, Jesus said it was going to get tougher. Some of the members were about to be imprisoned and tested for ten days. The number 10 in the Bible seems to represent:
Holiness to God; authority; completion of judgment.
This was the church’s direction from Jesus:
“Be faithful and I will rescue you!”
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Sometimes, God is glorified by our faithfulness in tribulation and not our rescue from tribulation.
The crown of life is given to those who serve Jesus faithfully in this life in the face of persecution and trial.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. James 1:12
As He often does in these messages, Jesus uses an illustration that the people of the area are familiar with to drive home the truth of His message.
In verse 8, Jesus introduced His right to give this message by saying:
“These things says the First and Last, who was dead, and came to life”
In verse 11, Jesus said:
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”
The church in Smyrna was facing life and death. If they held on to their faith in Christ, it meant death in this world. Jesus acknowledges their situation and encourages them by saying:
“I am the God of First things, but I’m also the God of Last things. I am God in the midst of your death. I rule in death, just as I rule in life. I was dead myself, but came to life. So, shall you.”
Don’t fear natural death; instead fear the second death – the death from which no man returns.
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation 21:8
There is more to life than what we see and know. An absence of trouble does not prove that a church is a church of Christ. A church’s faithful perseverance through trials, attacks, and tribulation prove that they are a church that pleases God.