Smyrna – who could find Smyrna on a map? I will give you a hint: Smyrna is the modern day city of Izmir. It is located on the Western coast of Turkey on the Aegean Sea. [Smyrna map] It is only one of the 7 cities in Chapters 2-3 that still exists, though its church has been through periods of existence and non-existence. The ancient church that Christ wrote to is long since gone. As a city in the first century A.D., Smyrna had schools of international renown for both science and medicine. It was the first city in the Greek regions to promote the worship of the emperor and to build a temple to the goddess – Roma. Smyrna was a progressive city, much like Seattle or possibly even Bellingham. The newest religions flourished. The trades were doing a bang up job. And everybody hated the Christians.
It was in this setting that Jesus begins by highlighting a part of his description that will be especially comforting to the Christians living in Smyrna. He declares, “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (Rev 2:8). In the first part, Jesus takes to himself the title “the First and the Last.” This is a quotation from Isaiah 44 where God is speaking to his chosen people and encouraging them. In the first verses of the chapter God declares, “This is what the Lord says – he who made you, who formed you in the womb and who will help you: Do not be afraid” (Isa 44:2). God goes on to declare his sovereign election for the people and he promises to pour out his spirit on the people. Then in the 6th verse God declares, I am “Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and the Last, apart from me there is no God” (Isa 44:6). The rest of the chapter then goes on to discuss not turning to lifeless idols but standing firm with the only God who is God.
Jesus wanted to identify himself as the concerned God of the Old Testament. He wanted these Smyrnans to be comforted and to be assured that He alone is God; there is no other God. Caesar is not God. Roma is not God. The other temples, which exist in the city, are not the residents of gods. There is only one god who can help you. Don’t be afraid.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15). He is the firstborn of many brothers (Rom 8:29), and he has But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1Cor. 15:20). He is “the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (1Cor. 15:45). And given what he is about to say to the church, as he declares the trials and tribulations that are coming their way, these words, this title is meant to comfort and encourage the believers to remain faithful and make the good confession. And so our Lord in his tender mercy addresses the church.
The words I know are words meant to comfort the people that nothing they are experiencing has slipped God’s notice. He knows. He knows all things, including the suffering of his people. He sees the poverty they endure because of the name of Christ. Since none of the other churches are singled out as poor, the poverty of these believers must be particularly extreme. Their uncompromising devotion to Jesus as the Christ has brought great hardship upon them in the city markets and the trade guilds. Later in Revelation we will encounter these words, “He [The beast of the earth] also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name (Rev. 13:16-17).
It appears that the believers in Smyrna have refused to participate in any of the pagan idolatry and worship of the day and so they have been reduced to utter destitution. They are suffering for their faith. Even more, we know that the Jews of Smyrna, as of other parts, were often quick to inform the Roman authorities that the Christians were not a Jewish sect. As a Jewish sect, the church was safe and enjoyed a certain amount of freedom from having to engage in emperor worship, but by being informed that Christianity was not a sect of Judaism, this safety would have been removed and the Romans would have required temple worship, and any believer refusing to do so would have found the wrath of Rome turned upon them. (Beale, NIGTC: Revelation, p240)
Hence Jesus calls these Jews who are turning God’s people over to Rome, a “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9. Jesus isn’t calling all Jews, “a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9). He is calling this particular set of Jews who are seeking to destroy the church, and to make their life even more dire, a synagogue of Satan. One thing to note here is that the term Satan is not a proper noun. It is a generic term that means adversary or opposition. So Jesus is calling the Jews of the city, who are trying to get the Roman world to punish the Christians, he is calling these Jews a gathering of adversaries. They are a collection of oppressors. Their words are venomous; their words are abusive. They are doing the devil’s bidding by opposing the people of God.
But the good news is that Jesus hears every word. In fact, Jesus declared during his time on earth that But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt. 12:36). And if that is the future for careless words, what more will be required of those who speak slanderous, murderous and blasphemous words against the people of God?
Christ sees these believer’s suffering and poverty. He sees their opposition and their oppressors and he sees the trials, which they haven’t even undergone yet. He sees the future of this church. The Devil is going to put some of you in prison to test you (Rev 2:10). But more than just seeing it, it is under Jesus’ control. The victorious Christ who has risen from the dead has not abandoned these believers to the devil, quite the contrary, he is watching every step of the adversary and he is limiting his power. It isn’t the devil’s desire to simply cause some to be thrown into prison; it isn’t his desire simply to cause some to suffer. No, he desires that the entire church suffer. He wants the entire church to be locked up and made of no account. He wants to destroy the church. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1Pet 5:8).
But Jesus says, only some of you will be put in prison, not all of you. Jesus says this persecution will last for 10 days, not for an eternity. In the grand scheme of things, the opposition facing you in the future is of a short time horizon, not a long one. Jesus says, yes, some of you will die for your faith, but not all of you. Be faithful! Don’t fear! Be strong! Stand Firm! As one commentator noted, “It is more important to be faithful than to be powerful” (Osborne, Revelation p129).
Let me tell you about one faithful Smyrnan. Church history tells of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. He was urged by the proconsul of the city to deny Christ. He was urged to repent of his foolishness and to offer incense to the emperor. And he responded to all these urgings to deny the Son with these words, “Four score and 6 years I have been his Servant and he hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.3). And ultimately he was burned at the stake. Yet he was faithful to his Lord. Of Polycarp, it could be said, he fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith (2Tim 4:7), even to the point of death (Rev 2:10).
I can’t help but think, that these words from the Risen and victorious Christ to the Christians in Smyrna, Be Faithful, I can’t help but thing they had something to do with Polycarp’s bravery and faithfulness. He would have read this letter. He would have known this command of the Lord; he would have had the promises of life firmly fixed in his mind as the bishop of this particular church. He knew the faithfulness of his Lord. He knew that those who follow Christ must be ready to suffer persecution for our Lord Jesus was also persecuted. And so he stood his ground as the Ephesian letter says, strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes…so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then… (Eph 6:10,11, 13).
Christ’s word to this small, insignificant, poor church was an encouragement to be faithful no matter what the cost. It was an encouragement to trust that Jesus was watching and guaranteeing a future life for all who are faithful.
So what does this letter say to us so far?
First, it serves as an encouragement that our trials and tribulations aren’t missed. The things we suffer as a result of being obedient to Christ are noticed. Christ sees the scorn you endure for refusing to speak ill of others. Christ sees the ostracizing that occurs because you walk away from the dirty jokes. Christ hears the words of slander spoken to your boss by those who hate the church in order to keep you from advancing. Christ sees the hardships you face because you live out your faith in the workplace. He sees it when people make fun of you for befriending the nerd, geek or for speaking well of those who aren’t in favor. He sees the employer who is litigated against because they refuse to provide services at a same sex ceremony. He sees the company owner who is sued and fined for refusing to provide abortion coverage for their employees, or who refuses to stay open on Sundays. He hears the words spoken derogatorily against the church for failing to embrace scientism. And every one of these trials and tribulations and slanders is precious to him.
They carry great weight in the eyes of our Lord. He knows them all. He cherishes the sacrifices we make and he promises that these sacrificial offerings will not be forgotten. In fact, everything we suffer as a result of our faith is stored up in heaven and turned into a rich treasure. I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich (Rev 2:9). The Christian life is one of great wealth, it just so happens that much of our wealth is stored up in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:20). It just so happens that our wealth is the wealth of righteousness, not silver and gold. James declares that God chose the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom (James 2:5). This letter encourages us that when the trials of life press in because of our faith in Christ, that our faith is what will grow and be strong and sustain us. Be faithful to Christ and be rich in good deeds (1Tim 6:18) no matter what the cost.
But more than just an encouragement to us to passively know that our suffering is turned to glory, the letter to Smyrna urges us to strive onward in our faith realizing that the more we are faithful, the more we will suffer for it. Faithfulness may even lead us to our death. It may lead us to financial ruin. It may lead us to social suicide. But that is of no account, for faithfulness to Christ leads to a rich reward – the reward of a crown of life. There were two kinds of crowns in the ancient world, a crown of authority to rule and a victor’s crown when one had competed in the games and won. Jesus promises the victor’s crown to the faithful. But in contrast to the victor’s crowns of the ancient world, which would deteriorate over time, Jesus promises a crown of life, an eternal crown. He promises a victorious honor to the faithful. It is an imperishable gift according to 1Cor 9:25.
In fact, it appears that Jesus is making a direct allusion to a tradition of Smyrna in which the city awards crowns post-humously as a high honor to prominent citizens (Osborne, p135). Only now the honor is granted to the faithful, especially to those who die for the faith, but not limited to them alone. All the faithful will receive this crown of life. So we are encouraged to be faithful.
People of God, there is a reward for those who are faithful.
- Be faithful at work, when standing up for Christ and obeying his word will cost clients, profits or promotions.
- Be faithful, when following Christ brings the government against your business and the threat and actual fact of lawsuits arise.
- Be faithful in your family when the world calls you to give a little here and a little there in order to enjoy its luxuries, but doing so causes you to not be able to bring up your children in the ways of the Lord.
- Be faithful, even when the coming persecution in our country breaks out and Christians are imprisoned and killed. And know that he promises you and I that in those times of persecution, it will not be us speaking, but the Spirit of our Father speaking through [us] (Matt 10:20).
Though “Satan may take away our material goods, in Jesus Christ we have all the riches of heaven. [Though] Satan may turn the state against us, but Jesus Christ is our king … [Though] Satan may lie about us and slander us, Jesus Christ rebukes him and strips off our filthy rags while clothing us with his perfect righteousness. [Though] Satan may even take our lives, … if he does, we will come to life with Christ and reign with him…” victoriously! (Riddlebarger, Sermon on Rev. 2:8-11)
Be faithful for there is a faithful one who promises life after death, reward after suffering, a good name after slander. He promises himself to all who take up their cross and follow. Be faithful, stand firm upon the Rock.