“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, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. 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 unto 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 shall not be hurt by the second death.” (NKJV)
This letter has the distinction of being the shortest of the seven. It also is one of only two in which our Lord has no complaint. The other is the letter to the church in Philadelphia.
1. The City of the Epistle.
Smyrna was founded about a thousand years before Christ. In the ebb and flow of history, it had been destroyed and lay mostly dormant for several centuries. Then it was rebuilt and, in fact, still exists today. It’s called Izmir, in Turkey. In effect, the city has “been dead and is alive.”
In these letters, and in His earthly ministry, the Lord used things with which people were familiar to teach spiritual truths: sowing and harvesting, fishing, eating and drinking, the ordinary things of everyday life, to illustrate the extraordinary things of eternal life. The people would certainly have made the connection with His statement about Himself living though once dead and their own city’s history.
Smyrna was known for its exceptional beauty. As one looked up the slope from the harbor toward the city, with temples and ornate buildings on the rounded crest of the hill called Pagos, he would see what was known as “the crown of Smyrna.” This would fit in with our Lord’s reference to a crown, not of dead buildings, but of eternal life.
The Greek word “smurna,” from which the city gets its name, named a fragrant and very valuable substance, used both for the living, Matthew 2:11, and the dead, John 19:39. It’s fragrance was released by crushing, an apt metaphor for the suffering church at Smyrna.
2. The Contents of the Epistle.
– His appraisal of them, vs. 8-9.
“I know.” So often we act as if the Lord doesn’t know what’s going on in our lives, but Scripture says otherwise. For example, Psalm 139:16: Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book they were all written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. There is no escaping His omniscient eye.
There’s some discussion as to whether the phrase “your works” belongs in the text because some manuscripts don’t have it. Certainly the main theme of the letter is about affliction and not activity. Yet someone has pointed out that activity for God is likely to bring on affliction.
– tribulation. An account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, 69-155 AD, a bishop (pastor) of the church in Smyrna, will give us some idea of what early Christians went through:
“Faithful unto death, this venerable leader was burned at the stake in the year 155 A.D. He had been asked to say, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ but refused. Brought to the stadium, the proconsul urged him, saying, ‘Swear and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ.’ Polycarp answered, ‘Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?’ When the proconsul again pressed him, the old man answered, ‘Since thou art vainly urgent that…I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian….’ A little later, the proconsul answers: ‘I have wild beasts at hand, to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.’ Afterward: ‘I will cause thee to be consumed with fire, seeing thou despise the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.’ But Polycarp said, ‘Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring on what thou wilt.’ Soon after the people began to gather wood and faggots; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them. Thus Polycarp was burned at the stake.” (Quoted from W. Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, pp. 79, 80.) Other accounts add that he was also stabbed through the heart.
– poverty. Quite possibly these believers were poor to begin with, but the pervasive place of religion in the society of that day, with every part of it being tied into the worship and service of whatever false gods were in that particular society, would make the believer an outcast from society, cutting him off from it and making it very difficult for him to make a living or even to live.
Strange, isn’t it, that when religion is false, Satan has it all over the place, but when it’s true, Satan says, “Oh, no, we have to keep that out of everyday life.” As in his current idea from the highest levels of our government that Christians may “worship” as long as they keep it in church, but they have to leave it there and must live like pagans and accept whatever ideas the world comes up with the rest of the time.
In spite of all their troubles, the Lord said to the church at Smyrna –
– “you are rich.” Truly, our Lord doesn’t look at things like we do. Even many professed Christians have fallen into the trap of “health and wealth” preachers and believe that blessing is based on the size of our bank account. But the “riches of faith” have nothing to do with all that.
Our Lord said, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Mark 8:36, 37. Revelation 21:21 tells us the street of the New Jerusalem is pure gold, like transparent glass. I’m not going to get into the discussion now as to whether or not this is “literal.” But it certainly tells us that heaven’s idea of wealth is different from ours! The asphalt we pave our streets with may be expensive, but it’s not worth anything. No man takes a chunk of asphalt to the jeweler and tells him to put it in a fancy setting in a ring. No woman wears a necklace of asphalt around her neck.
In heaven, what we think is one of the most precious and valuable commodities is used as pavement! James 2:5 refers to the poor of this world rich in faith. The poor believer who has nothing of this world’s goods and is hard pressed to feed his family is wealthier than that person who lives in a fancy gated community and has more than heart could desire. We just can’t see it and don’t think of it like that. But “faith” deals with things which can’t be seen, Hebrews 11:1.
But there’s something else the Lord knows about them:
– “the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” This seems like a very harsh statement, but it’s the assessment of the Lord Jesus.
The Book of Acts reveals the difficulties Paul had with the Jews and how they hindered and persecuted him at every turn, cf. Acts 13:45, 50. Even many believers had difficulty in accepting the idea that one no longer came to God through Israel, but through the Lord Jesus, and that the Gospel was to be preached to every nation. Peter especially had difficulty with this idea. This was the reason behind the happenings in Acts 10.
There’s a lot of discussion about the place of the Jews in the current age. Some say that they have no place at all, that God is done with the nation of Israel as a nation. Others say that they are still God’s chosen people and try to get them to “accept” Jesus as their Messiah.
I think both views are unScriptural.
If words have any meaning, God is not done with the nation of Israel. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are filled with promises of Israel’s future restoration – if words have any meaning at all, and aren’t wrested from their context and their message. At the same time, it is equally clear that Israel has been temporarily set aside and the Jews are not, in this age, God’s chosen people. That place is filled by true believers.
Jesus is not to be presented as the Jew’s Messiah, but is to be proclaimed as Savior. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Romans 10:11. While it’s true that that verse talks about salvation, there’s not one message for the Jew and another for the Gentile. Indeed, Paul goes on to say that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, Galatians 3:28. There are no ethnic distinctions at the foot of the Cross. We all stand condemned as sinners, regardless of where else we may stand in this world. A biological link to Abraham means nothing, Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8. Apart from the grace of God and faith in the Lord Jesus, we are all under the influence and control of Satan, the god of this world, Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4. It doesn’t matter what we say. This is what God says. It’s what the Lord Jesus said in Revelation.
At the same time, this gives us no right or reason to hate and despise the Jews, as some of the early church fathers did. Some not so early, too…. And some folks today….
– His advice to them, vs. 10.
– “Do not fear…”
Fear is a natural reaction to the idea of pain and suffering. Jesus doesn’t tell these believers that they have to like what they’re about to endure, just that they’re not to be afraid of it. It won’t last very long – ten days, however that’s to be understood in this context. The point is, these things are not permanent, but, in light of eternity, are almost insignificant. I know. That’s easy to say in comfortable surroundings, but difficult to hold onto in unpleasant situations. It’s still true, and, by God’s grace, we’re able to hold onto God’s promises.
I was thinking about this the other day. Sometimes we can’t really think of a pertinent promise from God for a particular situation. In such cases, perhaps we just need to “pray Christ,” because all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, 2 Corinthians 1:20.
– His affirmation, v. 11.
Some folks try to use this verse to “prove” salvation can be lost. I think it says that those who “persevere” are the only ones truly saved. In speaking of false prophets, who were plentiful even in his day, the Apostle John wrote, They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us, 1 John 2:19. This is true of professing Christians, as well. There are multitudes of people who’ve been led to “make a profession of faith” who are nowhere to be found. In fact, many have become avid opponents of “Christianity.” I believe this is where so many of the “fundamentalist-turned-atheist” websites and such have come from.
The church at Smyrna was threatened with terrible forms of torture and death. Our Lord was simply saying that there are worse things. Warning His disciples of persecutions to come, He said, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear. Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” Luke 12:4, 5.
In the Greek of v. 11, there’s a double negative – “he who overcomes shall not at all be injured by the second death.” These saints may have to bow their heads to those who execute the first death – as many are now doing in our day – but who have nothing more that they can do after that.
Our Lord had said something about this in His earthly ministry. In Luke 21, He said, “Take heed that you be not deceived. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He’, and, ‘The time has drawn near'[date setting]. Therefore do not go after them. But when you hear of wars and commotions [increased news coverage ability – radio, TV, internet], do not be terrified; for these things must come to pass first, but the end will not come immediately.”
Then He said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there shall be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake. But it will turn to you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you shall be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your heads shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls,” vs. 8-19, emphasis added.
“Not a hair of your heads shall be lost.”
It probably sounds corny in this context, but there’s a phrase the world uses that used here goes so much farther than the world can imagine:
He has our back.
This was His promise to Smyrna.
It’s His promise to us.