The Church at Smyrna: Part 4 of 5 (series: Lessons on Revelation)
by John Lowe
The Lord reminded this church that He Himself was once dead when he described himself as One “who died and came to life again” (2:8) Now He says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death.” But an easy life and prosperity are nowhere promised the Christian as a reward for his faith. On the contrary, he is warned to expect “persecution” in this hostile world. Most of us have wondered if, faced with the prospect of a speedy or a lingering death as a reward for faithfulness to Christ, would we have the strength to endure to the end. We turn the pages of history and read of the terrible things which have been done to the saints. We wonder whether we would have the fortitude and the faith to hold out. We must live for Christ today. That is the only guarantee that we would be able to die for Christ tomorrow.
The message to the Smyrna church was to remain “faithful” during their sufferings because God is in control and because His promises are reliable. Jesus never taught that by being “faithful” to Him, believers would avoid troubles, suffering, and “persecution.” Rather, believers must be “faithful” to Christ even when suffering. Only then will their faith prove genuine. Believers remain “faithful” by keeping their eyes on Christ and on what he promises for now and for the future (see Philippians 3:13-14; 2 Timothy 4:8).
The victorious believer is promised enduring supremacy. The Lord says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (2:10b). The “crown of life” is one of five crowns promised to “faithful” believers when Christ returns. They are: the incorruptible crown (1 Corinthians 9:25); the soul-winners crown (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19); the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8); the crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4); the crown of life (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10). These are not to be worn on our heads in Heaven, but rather to be presented to our blessed Lord (Revelation 4:1014). The Christian philosophy of suffering for Christ is that out of tribulation comes triumph; out of “persecution,” the prize; out of “death” we come to reigning “life” with Him.
The world offers the believer “death” by torture, death in a thousand fiendish ways. Christ crowned him with “life,” with a “crown” which will outlast the universe itself. Jesus wants this congregation to be “faithful until “death” so that they may receive the crown of life. The word translated “crown” here is not a king’s “crown,” but the winning wreath given to the winner of a game. In the case of the Smyrnaeans, if they persevere in the midst of their difficulties, they will not be hurt by the second death15—in other words, they will be the ultimate victors over hell (the second death). Dwight L. Moody put it like this: “He who is born once will die twice; he who is born twice will die once.” And if the Rapture occurs during his lifetime, he won’t even have to die that one time. The “second death” is the “death” which no believer will experience. The first death concerns the body. The “second death” concerns the soul and
the spirit; it his eternal separation from God. No believer will have to undergo that.
Verses 9 and 10 contain seven things about this church which the Lord commended; when taken together, they comprise a summary of this passage:
• “Tribulation (afflictions)” is mentioned first. Remember, this is not the Great Tribulation; it means simply trouble. Since the awful persecution of the church by the Roman emperors is not called the Great Tribulation, surely our small sufferings are not the Great Tribulation. But the church in Smyrna endured much tribulation, and they suffered for the Lord Jesus Christ.
• “Poverty” denotes the lack of material possessions. The early church was made up largely of the poorer classes. When the wealthy believed in Christ, their property was confiscated because of their faith. “But that all art rich (2:9)” denotes the spiritual wealth of the church—they were blessed with all spiritual blessings.
• “The slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The implication is that the Jews in Smyrna who had come to Christ were Jews inwardly as well as outwardly. In Romans 9:6 Paul says that not all Israel is Israel. It is his religion that makes a Jew a real Jew. His religion is the thing that identifies him. Speaking of them nationally, the Lord said that their father was “. . . a Syrian ready to perish . . .” (Deuteronomy 26:5). But Smyrna was a city of culture in which many Jews had discarded their belief in the Old Testament. Although they said they were Jews, when a Jew gives up his religion, there is a question whether or not he is a Jew. In Germany, many tried to do that, by the way. Down through the years, there has been only a remnant of these people who had truly been God’s people.
• “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer” is the encouragement of the Lord to His own in the midst of persecutions. History tells us that multitudes went to their death singing praises to God.
• “The devil Satan
will put some of you in prison.” We are going to look at this fearful creature later on, but Christ labels him as being responsible for the suffering of the saints in Smyrna. You and I tend to blame the immediate person or circumstance which serves as Satan’s tool, but the Lord Jesus goes back to the root of the trouble.
• “You will suffer persecution for ten days.” There were 10 intense periods of persecution by 10 Roman emperors (these dates are approximate; could only list 5):
Nero—64-68 (Paul was beheaded under his reign)
Domitian—95-96 (John was exiled during that period)
Trajan—104-117 (Ignatius was burned at the state)
Marcus Aurelius—161-180 (Polycarp was martyred)
Diocletian—303-313 (the worst emperor of all)
• “Be faithful, even to the point of death,”—and they were. They were martyrs for Him. He promises them “a crown of life.” Remember that He is addressing the believers who lived in Smyrna, the crown city. It is interesting that to them He is saying that He will give crowns—not crowns of flowers—or of anything else perishable—but crowns that will be eternal.