(eighth article in our series on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. Revelation 1-3)
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna, write: ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead and came to life: I know your works….'” (Revelation 2:8ff)
Suppose a friend of yours was in the cross hairs for a massive hurricane or killer tornado, one bearing down on him with a fury. You would do all you could to alert him and to help him get out of danger. Likewise, our Lord sees that the believers in Smyrna are about to receive a great persecution. His letter is to warn them to “buckle up,” to get ready. There’s no escaping it, so all they can do is get prepared and keep their eyes on the Lord.
This is the shortest of the seven letters, only four verses.
Population was 200,000. It was a seaport on the Aegean Sea. Smyrna boasted the largest theater in Asia. The old city was destroyed by the Persians and rebuilt by Alexander the Great. The city experienced an earthquake in AD 178 (which is long after the period we’re dealing with). The Greek poet Homer was borne here.
This is the only city of the seven still functioning, with the other six being archaeological ruins. Turks call it Izmir. It’s said to be a beautiful place.
The name Smyrna means “myrrh,” a perfume for the dead.
How our Lord introduced Himself…
“These things says the First and the Last, who was dead and who came to live.” (See 1:8,11, and 17-18)
If you’re about to go through a testing so severe that you may not survive the experience, it helps to know that your Master is still in charge. He is the First and the Last, the one who has been through the valley of death and come out smiling. He is alive forevermore and we are “more than conquerors through Him” (Romans 8:37).
What our Lord knows about Smyrna Christians….
“I know your works, your tribulation, and your poverty (although it’s only of the earthly kind and not in anyway that really matters!). And I know the blasphemy of people claiming to be Jews–true believers in the authentic lineage of Abraham–but they are not! but are actually a synagogue of Satan himself!”
He sees the good they’re able to accomplish, even while their enemies are blaspheming and attacking them. Some of these cities had huge Jewish synagogues, some seating up to a thousand, so the opposing Jews would have greatly outnumbered the little band of Christians. See below for a discussion about such Jews.
The Lord sees these things. You may be going through such difficult times you wonder if the Lord does see. Does He know? Surely, you think, if He were aware He would do something about it!
But not necessarily .
In fact, not only does He see and know, but to the Smyrna believers. He informs you that things are about to get worse.
Don’t miss this. You and I sometimes put these little shackles on the Lord. We say, “If the Lord really knew what was going on and loved us, He would put a stop to it. But He does not stop it, so He must not love us.” And that kind of faulty reasoning–shallow, superficial, short-sighted–has led many a so-called Christian to renounce his/her faith.
But notice the Lord knows these things, sees them, cares deeply, and still allows them.
Jesus warns them…
“Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful….” (2:10).
What does “ten days” mean? Scholars disagree. John MacArthur says this means it will be brief. Others say “ten days” indicates it will be lengthy.
We’re told that Polycarp (AD 69-155) was the bishop of Smyrna. Early historians say he died a martyr’s death, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to touch him. Polycarp was a disciple of John, according to the earliest reports, and was greatly loved by believers. When he was arrested by the Roman authorities, he was warned he would be burned alive unless he renounced Jesus. He answered, “Eight-six years have I served Christ and He has done me nothing but good. How then could I curse Him, my Lord and my Savior?”
The Lord sees and cares…and still allows trials.
I think of Hagar, the maid of Abraham’s wife Sarah. Our beloved patriarch and matriarch mistreated this woman and drove her away. In her exhaustion, Hagar stopped at a spring in the wilderness where the Angel of the Lord came to her there. He assured her that God was with her and would bless her. As the angel departs, she calls God Lahai-Roi, a Hebraism meaning “The one who lives and sees me.” And she said, “Have I also seen the One who sees me?” She was overwhelmed. (Genesis 16)
Everyone should have such an encounter with the One who lives! and who sees! It would leave us changed forever.
And yet. God still allowed Hagar to endure the mistreatment. Only He was with her, and she had His promise.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Those who claim to be Jews and are not…
The Apostle Paul was well acquainted with hostile Jews. He said in Romans that just because some people could trace their lineage back to Jacob did not make them Jews. “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel,” he said (Romans 9:6). Paul distinguished between physical and spiritual Jews.
Similarly, our Lord had much to say on this subject. When His opponents said, “We have Abraham as our father,” Jesus said, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God….. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth…. he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8)
John the Baptist told them, “Do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father, for I say to you that God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones!” (Luke 3:8).
So, Scripture is clear on this. Those who believe on the Son of God are spiritual Israel.
The Lord wants His children to know hardships are coming and to be prepared…
Suffering is coming. Expect it. Expect it to be severe. Expect the Lord to be present. Expect to persevere.
Have you read Matthew 10 lately? This is as clear a manifesto as we could ask for, as our Lord informs His children–then and now!–what to expect. A quick word or two about Matthew 10, please.
–Verses 1-15 list the disciples and give some temporary instructions, many of which will be reversed later on.
–Verses 16 through the end of the chapter are for all God’s people, for the rest of this age. Jesus prepares us for the suffering to come, with some experiencing death, and promises that He will be there, He will give those on trial the words to say, and that He will be using this for His purposes. Meanwhile, His children are to rejoice, not to fear, and to speak out boldly. Do this and He will bless mightily.
God’s people must constantly remind one another that if we interpret pain and suffering as evidence of the absence of God or the withdrawal of His blessings, we will not last. Both Scripture and life teach that the Lord frequently allows His people to go through the worst hell can fling at them.
In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not. And when you are converted (or, when you have returned to Me) strengthen your brethren.” We can imagine Peter saying, “But Lord! When Satan asked for permission to torment me, why didn’t You tell him no??” But He didn’t. For reasons God alone knows.
Keep that in mind, Christian. God knows what He is doing and as a rule, will not be telling us. We know from the wonderful story of Job in the Old Testament that when we are going through trials and suffering, things are happening on a higher plane that we know nothing about. Some day we will see, and will be so glad we were found faithful.
One of the great stories in the New Testament is found in Acts 16 where Paul and Silas are thrown into the Philippian jail for nothing more than preaching the gospel. They were beaten severely and their bodies left as open wounds. Then, they were locked into stocks inside the innermost part of the prison. And then comes verse 25. “At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” God used their faithful testimony to do His amazing will that night.
“The persecution and genocide of Christians across the world is worse today than at any time in history” (Newsweek, citing a 2018 study by ‘Aid to the Church in Need; From the Jackson MS Clarion-Ledger December 25, 2018).
When the redeemed suffer for Jesus, it matters to Him greatly.
Watch as Stephen the first martyr is stoned to death. “He, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56).
Jesus standing at the right hand of God? We see Him sitting there in Hebrews 10:12. But standing? I suspect He was either getting ready to welcome His blessed child to Heaven, or considering tearing into that ungodly crew with a vengeance. One or the other.
In Revelation 7, a great multitude–beyond counting, John says–of all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages, were standing before the throne and worshiping the Lamb. They were decked out in white robes, calling out their praise. And an elder asks, “Who are these people in their white robes? Where did they come from?” When John tells the elder, “You know who they are,” the elder confirms it. “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them while in the blood of the Lamb.” He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes (v. 17).
“He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” And what is the second death? According to Revelation 20:6,14 and 21:8, that would be the ultimate death, the lake of fire.
None for us, thanks. After all, Jesus is “the firstborn from the dead,” He has washed us from our sins in His own blood and has made us to be kings and priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:5-6). Are we blessed or what?