The Church at Smyrna: Part 2 of 5 (series: Lessons on Revelation)
by John Lowe
As usual, the Lord begins by accenting the positive. “I know your afflictions and your poverty,” He says. First, He underscores the persecution at Smyrna and brings comfort with the words “I know!” The Lord Jesus, our Savior, knows every heartache. He knows every pain, every tear, and every burden. It is encouraging, to say the least, when facing some dark hour of trial, to have a friend in a position of high authority to take you by the hand and say, “I know, I sympathize, I understand, I’m standing by you in this. You can count on me.” There is no sob, no tear, no heartache, pain, or fear that the Lord does not share. He has faced life to the full, drunk its sorrows to the dregs. He knows!
WE FLOURISH BEST AND ARE THE RICHEST WHEN WE SUFFER. When the church is persecuted it spreads like wildfire. When the church is at ease, God’s work suffers sorely! Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh.” He prayed for God to remove the thorn, but God did not remove it. God promised and gave grace sufficient to bear it—and Paul was the richer for it (2 Corinthians 12:76). The Hebrew Christians rejoiced in the plundering of their goods (Hebrews 10:347). The three Hebrew children knew Jehovah from the historical standpoint; but when they met Him in the midst of the fiery furnace they knew Him as they could never have known Him had they not stood when the king commanded them to bow (Read about it in Daniel 3:1-25).
The “church in Smyrna” was suffering because of persecution, and believers faced “poverty” even in this wealthy city. This probably refers to material poverty because Christ immediately assured them that despite their “poverty,” they were “rich”—referring to their heavenly riches (James 2:58). These Christians’ “poverty” may have been due to a number of things:
• It may have come from sanctions against them as part of the persecution they faced.
• It could have been due to the fact that most of them belonged to the lower classes of society. The gulf between the top and the bottom of the social scale was very wide. We know, for instance, that in Rome the poor classes literally starved because contrary winds delayed the corn ships from Alexandria and the corn Dole9 could not be distributed.
• Sometimes Christians suffered from being robbed of their goods (Hebrews 10:4). There were times when the heathen mob would suddenly attack the Christians and wreck their homes and take what they wanted. Life was not easy for a Christian in Smyrna or anywhere else in the ancient world.
At “Smyrna” there was a congregation of believers who “quenched the violence of fire . . . had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:34-38, KJV). The Lord says, “I know.” He was born in a borrowed stable, and early in His ministry, He said, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). Those poor saints in “Smyrna” were comforted by His words.
The next thing the Lord does is to underline the “poverty” at “Smyrna.” He says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” (2:9; also see 2 Corinthians 8:9) These Christians had literally suffered the loss of all things for Christ’s sake. They had lost their possessions, their social prestige and the possibility of working to earn an honest living, but in the sight of the Lord, they were wealthy. They had invested their treasures “in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through
nor steal” (Matthew 6:20). They knew that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).
The church at “Smyrna” was tolerating false doctrine. The Lord says, “I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” What He means is that, in light of the revelation of Jesus, being a Jew has more to do with how a person lives than with his heritage or bloodline. This is key to one’s interpretation of John’s writing in Revelation. One who understands John’s use of the Jewish nation to mean the new nation of faith—the church—will interpret passages relating to the “Jews” as symbolically to be about the church as a whole. How one chooses to interpret this affects many portions of this book. The basic error at the core of such a misunderstanding of this truth is the error of failing to distinguish between Israel and the church. From earliest times in church history, attempts have been made to graft various forms of Judaism onto Christianity. The two systems are mutually exclusive, as Paul clearly recognized even before his conversion. That is why he persecuted the church. Yet in doctrine and in practice, the church has tolerated the alien Judaistic graft. Some wish to graft on law-keeping; others are fascinated by ritualism and by the sacerdotalism10
of the Old Testament; others wish to deny any factual distinction between Israel and the church and seek to make the one an extension of the other.
In addition to the persecution and “poverty” they suffered, the Lord recognized how they had suffered from the spread of false reports. He said: “I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). This church was surrounded by foes; and there was a group within the church who claimed to be Jews, but who were not really Jews. They were in the church for what they could get out of it—not for what they could give to the Christ in the midst of the golden candlesticks. They could rightfully say they were descendants of Abraham, but the people of God are those who had accepted Jesus as Messiah as Savior. “And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you” (Galatians 3:29, NLT). A true Jew is not one physically or racially, but spiritually (Romans 2:17-29). Any religious group, Jewish or Gentile, that does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as God’s Son is certainly acting contrary to God’s will. Thank God that people like them (false followers) will be left behind when the true Church is taken out! These false followers were tearing her reputation to pieces. They were “Jews” but they were not worthy of the name (Romans 2:28-2911
). Rather than representing a true Jewish “synagogue,” they were a “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; John 8:44). The word “devil” means “slanderer.” He is the forger of lies and all manner of false accusations against God’s children (Revelation 12:1012
). Six slanders were regularly leveled against the Christians.
• On the basis of the words of the Sacrament—this is my body, and this is my blood—the story went about that the Christians were cannibals.
• Because the Christians called their common meal the Agape, the Love Feast, it was said that their gatherings were orgies of lust.
• Because Christianity did, in fact, often split families, when some members became Christians and some did not, the Christians were accused of “tampering with family relationships.”
• The heathen accused the Christians of atheism because they could not understand the worship which had no images of the gods such as they themselves had.
• The Christians were accused of being politically disloyal because they would not say: “Caesar is Lord.”
• The Christians were accused of being incendiaries because they foretold the end of the world in flames.