Jesus' Words To The Church In Smyrna
A few weeks ago I was going into a gas station and I was hoping that they would have a popcorn machine. When I saw that they did, a smile came upon my face. I went to the popcorn machine and began to grab the door to open it. In that moment, I heard someone say, “Sir, I will get that for you.” I immediately let go of the door and looked around to see who had said those words. But the only employee that I saw was busy at the cash register and he was not looking at me. He was looking at the people who stood before in the check out line. Because of this I concluded that he must have been talking to someone else.
Again, I grabbed hold of the door so that I could get a bag of popcorn and then I heard that same voice scold me quite severely, “Don’t do that! I said that I would get that for you!” To be honest, I was somewhat offended and shocked by these words. I don’t like being yelled at.
Through that experience I began to appreciate how eye contact would have made all the difference in that situation. If that employee would have made eye contact with me the first time that he had said something, I would have known that he was talking to me and I would have obeyed him. I would have applied his instruction to my actions.
Similarly, let us consider Luke 6:20-26. In this passage we find Jesus surrounded by people but He does something that is meant to catch the attention of His disciples. So that they will hear something important that He has to say. This action by Jesus was necessary because of the great crowds that had begun to surround Jesus everywhere that He went.
Because of these crowds, Jesus begins in Luke 6:20 by saying, “And He lifted up His eyes upon His disciples, and said...”. With the large crowds Jesus’ disciples could be distracted in some way. So Jesus looks directly at them and says something important. Jesus’ words are meant to gain their attention and to direct their hearts heavenward even when life brings some undesired moments.
This is what Jesus says,
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
Just as Jesus looked His disciples that day and told them what they needed to hear; so too, in our text today Jesus will turn his attention to the church in Smyrna and tell them what they need to hear. And by extension He is also telling all of His churches what they need to hear concerning remaining fearless and faithful through times of tribulation and persecution.
Our text today is Revelation 2:8-11 which says,
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’”
A few years ago, I was at another church when three people walked through the front door. One of the ladies who walked through the doors worked for a local hospital and her job was to help recruit new employees and transition them into their new job and community. This lady was showing a doctor and his wife some of the churches in town because one of the priorities that they had was that wherever they relocated there must be a good church that they could attend. As soon as they came in the pastor gave them a tour of the building and attempted to answer any questions that they might have had.
Imagine for a moment that a similar scene was being played out in the city of Smyrna in about the year 95 AD. Imagine that you were showing a couple around the city in the hopes that they would decide to move their family to the city and accept the job that was being offered to them. Chances are, you would feel pretty good about your chances of persuading this couple to accept the job because of all the benefits of living in a town like Smyrna.
Of all of the cities in Asia, Smyrna was the most beautiful. Smyrna was second only to Ephesus in regards to being the most vital and affluent city in Asia Minor. The city was known for its consistent gentle westerly breeze which kept things cool and fresh. Smyrna was often called one of three names: the ornament of Asia, the crown of Asia, or the flower of Asia.
Smyrna was known for its prosperity fueled mainly by their trade. On one side of the city was the edge of the sea with a land locked harbor which was safe and convenient. On the side of the city was a road that led through Lydia and Phrygia and from there the road went all the way to the far east.
Smyrna was also known for its beauty. It began at the edges of the harbor; it traversed through some narrow foothills; and then behind the city there rose the Pagos, a hill which was covered with temples and noble buildings. This hill and its marvelous buildings became known as, ‘the crown of Smyrna’.
Smyrna was established initially as a Greek colony around 1000BC. Then around 600 BC it was attacked and destroyed by the Lydians. For the next 400 years the area was nothing more than a few villages. But around 200BC the city was planned out and broad straight streets were put in. Most famous of all the streets was the Street of Gold, which began with the Temple of Zeus and ended at the Temple of Cybele. William Barclay says of this, “…if the buildings which encircled the Pagos were the crown of Smyrna, then the Street of Gold was the necklace around the hill.” (p74)
As you walked with this couple through the town of Smyrna and showed them all of these sights you would also talk about how Smyrna was said to be the birthplace of Homer. You might point out to them that Smyrna also had a stadium in which famous games were held yearly. It was home to a magnificent public library; an Odeion which was the home of music; a theater which was one of the largest in all of Asia Minor.
As someone who had been tasked with recruiting this couple to come to this city, you would operate under a couple of assumptions. First, you would assume that they were religious. This would mean that you would assume that they were poly-theistic (believed in many god’s). Secondly, you would assume that they would also revere Rome and would have no problems with worshiping the Emperor of Rome saying, “Caesar is Lord!”. These two things were in the DNA of this city.
Therefore, as you guided them throughout the city you would show them the many temples that were in Smyrna. You would show them the temple of Cybele, Zeus, Apollo, Nemeseis, Aphrodite and others.
Smyrna was also very loyal to Rome. Long before Rome had become the Empire that it had become, Smyrna had supported Rome and never wavered in its faithfulness and fidelity to Rome. Cicero said of Smyrna, “she is one of our most faithful and our most ancient allies”. For example, when Rome was fighting a battle and things were going badly. The people of Smyrna took off their very clothes and sent them and food as provisions to the soldiers of Rome. [In 195 BC it was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma. In 26 AD Smyrna was picked from among all the other cities to erect a temple for Tiberius.]
As you take this couple around and show them the city you are a bit perplexed by the fact that they seem to be looking for something else in this city. Maybe you would conclude that they are Jewish and would like to see a synagogue. So you take them to a synagogue, since there is a large Jewish population in Smyrna. The Jews were very active in this community, even donating 10,000 danari to the city for beautification.
Yet, for all you have shown them they still seem to be looking for something else. After questioning them, they ask you if this city has a Christian church? You try to subtly discourage them from this because this religious sect is an outcast in this society. The Christians were considered strange because they held to many strange beliefs.
If this couple were to be taken to the Christian church in Smyrna they would not have seen a prosperous church; rather, they would see their impoverishment. There are two words that speak of poverty in the Greek language. One speaks of a person who is not rich, but who can provide for himself his daily needs. The word used here for this church refers to a person who has nothing at all and they are completely destitute.
Church history tells us that Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel who came to Jesus at night, ended up in this condition because of his faith in Christ. It is said that his conversion made him and his family an outcast in the same city where he once had so much power and prosperity. Nicodemus and his family became so impoverished that his daughter became a beggar in the streets and still no one, who knew whose daughter she was, had compassion upon her.
If you walked into this church you would see a church who who was experiencing a great tribulation. The word ‘tribulation’ speaks of the fact that they were being crushed under the pressing weight of these trials.
What was this tribulation that was pressing down upon this church? What was this crushing weight that brought upon them great impoverishment?
First, this church was being slandered. And some of the main participants in this were the Jews who worshiped in the synagogue. Some of the slanderous things that were said of these Christians were as follows:
It was said that they were cannibals because they would celebrate the Lord’s supper by saying, ‘This is my body, and this is my blood’.
It was said that they engaged in orgies of lust, because Christians shared a common meal together called the agape feast (the love feast).
They were accused of tampering with relationships because Christianity often split families apart.
They were accused of being atheists because they did not worship the many God’s, but only Christ.
The Christians were accused of treason and disloyalty because they refused to say, ‘Caesar is Lord’.
The Christians were accused of being incendiaries because they believed the world would end in flames when the Lord Jesus would return.
This church was also experiencing great tribulation because they were under attack by Satan himself. For example, in verse nine Jesus says that the Jews who were slandering them were a synagogue of Satan. John Wesley once said of his enemies in the faith, “Your God is my enemy”. In verse 10 Jesus says that the devil is about to throw some them in prison and some would even be put to death. When we hear these words we might find ourselves thinking that imprisonment is far better than death. But to be in prison at this time was usually simply a place to keep someone until their execution. Throughout the entire process of poverty, tribulation, slander, imprisonment, and death, the people were to not fear and they are to remain faithful (10).
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
The third reason that they were experiencing tribulation was because they were being tested and their faith was being refined and purified. This is what we see in the words, “...the devil is about to throw some of you in prison, that you may be tested” (10). Robert Leighton wrote, “Affliction is the diamond dust that heaven polishes its jewels with.” Throughout church history affliction has been seen as the means by which God writes Christ’s image more fully upon us, so that we may become partakers in His holiness. After quoting 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”, John Bunyan wrote, “By this scripture I was made to see that if ever I would suffer rightly, I must first pass a sentence of death upon everything that can be properly called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyment, and all, as dead to me, and myself as dead to them. The second was, to live upon God that is invisible, as Paul said in another place; the way not to faint, is to ‘look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.’”
Let us briefly look at how Christ encourages this church to endure such a tribulation even to the point of death.
The first encouragement is that Jesus Himself speaks to the churches (8,11). Do we have ears that will hear what the Spirit says (11)? Jesus is the first and the last, Jesus died and came to life. Christ is our example of One who willingly suffered and faithfully suffered unto death. Yet, He was raised from the dead showing that death could not hold Him in the grave.
The second encouragement is what Christ knows about His church.
Jesus knows their tribulation. He looks upon them as they endure under the crushing weight offering grace and strength to them to endure faithfully.
Jesus knows their poverty and supplies to His church what they need and what they have no way of obtaining.
Jesus knows that they are slandered. It is a comfort to know that Christ is not deceived by the propaganda and slander of the enemy. He is the first one to notice righteous men in an evil generation. The wickedness of a generation cannot the righteous from His sight. It is the Lord who saw righteous Job. It is the Lord who saw Noah among all the unrighteous of his day. It is the Lord who rescued Lot from among Sodom. God does not believe the lies of the enemy concerning us and neither should we. God can distinguish between the Egyptians and His people Israel. He can distinguish between the Christians in Smyrna and the synagogue of Satan. He can distinguish between the wheat and the tares; between the sheep and the goats. All true believers will not be hurt by the second death.
Jesus’ third encouragement to this church by showing that this testing will not endure forever. There is a limit as to how long the Lord will allow the church in Smyrna to have tribulation.
Jesus’ forth encouragement is not simply that hey will receive a crown of life, but that they will receive the crown of life from Jesus. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This week I saw one of the relatives of the massacre in Mexico asking that the president give one of the young kids a medal for his bravery. This type of a desire is only a shadow of the reality that a believer seeks to receive from Christ. Christ Himself will give to everyone a crown of life whose faith has enabled them to overcome and conquer.
Jesus’ fifth encouragement is that the one who conquers, even through death, will not be hurt by the second death. Woe to the man or woman who is comfortable in this world and is not prepared for the world to come.
Jesus’ sixth encouragement is that He loves this church (8,11). They may not have the worlds goods, their neighbors delight or the worlds peace; but Christ has lavished upon His church great riches (v.9). The citizens of Smyrna saw great beauty in the city, but Christ finds great beauty in His church. Even if that church is impoverished, crushed, slandered and persecuted.
How am I to end this sermon? What am I to leave us considering as we come to the end?
I began this sermon by talking about the three people that entered into that church that day. Two things went through my mind concerning what I witnessed that day. First, I was genuinely impressed that this couple wanted to go to some churches to see if there was a place for them to belong. May there be more couples with that desire.
The second thing I remember is that the pastor, understandably so, put the churches best foot forward. He showed them all the rooms in the church, he mentioned all the programs they offered, he cast the churches vision and mission to this couple.
But what if we would be less likely to show our buildings off to the people and quicker to talk about our faithfulness and fidelity to the Lord and our fearlessness in a wicked and godless culture.
A month ago I walked through a large church and the minister who had overseen several building campaigns said, “This is my legacy”. To be honest, my heart grieved in that moment. This is a building. It is a great one, but it is far less than the church that the pastor is building through prayer, preaching, teaching, by example, through faithfulness.
Polycarp was a minister in Smyrna who was in his twenties when this letter arrived. He was still a minister in Smyrna when he was 86 when he was arrested and martyred for his faith. He was told that he could live if he would but say, “Caesar is Lord!” and offer to Caesar a sacrifice. Polycarp replied, “86 years have I served Jesus Christ, He has done me no wrong. How then can I betray my Saviour?”
They brought wood for Polycarp to be burned and he asked that they not tie him to the stake. He said that he knew that the grace of God would give him the strength to die voluntarily in the flames. They mocked him believing that he would run away. But he remained. He remained in the flames praying to God and preaching the gospel to all who were there. His life was a testimony of grace. A grace that kept him over sixty years through tribulation, poverty, slander, spiritual attack and imprisonment.
His death was a testimony of grace. In death he looked to Christ, he preached Christ, he prayed to Christ, he worshiped Christ.
May our churches greatest boast be in the spiritual riches in Christ, of our fellowship with Christ, in the grace of Christ, in our fidelity and faithfulness to Christ, in our suffering as we reflect Christ.