The last time we began to study the seven messages to the seven churches which are found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. I’ve said before that these messages were written, not just for these seven churches, but they’re for every church in every generation. The Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus, who is the head and king of the church, has given us these messages to remind us of what life will like for his people in these, the last days in which we’re living and how we need to remain faithful and obedient while we wait for the Saviour to come again. The focus of the first message — the message to the church in Ephesus — was love. The Lord Jesus rebuked the Ephesians for forsaking their first love. It seems they no longer loved him the way they once did. And so, it’s a reminder to believers in every generation to watch out, lest our love for the Lord grows cold.
The focus of the second message — the message to church in Smyrna — is suffering. In these, the last days, the church on earth can expect to suffer for the faith.
And so, the message begins in verse 8 as the others do with a command to write to the angel of the church. I’ve said before that we don’t know for sure who or what the angels of the churches are; nevertheless they represented the church in some way. Then we have this description of the Lord Jesus, which is drawn from John’s vision of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus in chapter 1. So, he’s described as ‘the First and the Last’, which means he’s the Everlasting God who rules over all of history, from beginning to end. And, of course, that description is included to encourage the believers in Smyrna who were suffering for their faith. John is saying to them:
Remember who your Saviour is.
He’s the Everlasting God who rules over all of history, including the history of your lives. And the Lord Jesus is also described as the one who died, and who came to life again. And that’s an important reminder to suffering Christians, because it reminds and re-assures them that death is not the end. Death is not the end, because the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour died, but was raised; and whoever believes in him will live, even though we die.
So, this twofold description of the Lord Jesus is intended to encourage and to re-assure God’s suffering people in Smyrna and in every generation.
Kinds of Suffering
In the verses which follow, the Lord refers to five ways the believers in Smyrna were suffering persecution. First of all, he mentions their afflictions in verse 9. And the idea behind this word is that they’re having to endure a great pressure, which was bearing down upon them. Imagine someone trying to bear up under a great weight, which is threatening to crush them. Well, that’s what the word ‘afflictions’ refers to. And the historians can help us to understand a little of what they might have been going through, because they tell us how the city of Smyrna enjoyed a special relationship with Rome; it was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honour of Roma, the goddess of Rome. It also had a temple dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius. So, this was a city with a strong attachment to Rome and a strong allegiance to the Emperor. And part of that allegiance to the Emperor meant you were supposed to regard the Emperor as divine and offer sacrifices to him. And, of course, the Christians refused to do that; and, as a result, they suffered for not doing what everyone else was doing. I think I’ve mentioned Polycarp before. He was arrested by the Romans and was brought into the marketplace where he was condemned and burned. Before he was killed, the Roman governor looked at this elderly man and tried to persuade him to give up the faith and spare his life. And we can imagine the governor saying:
Go on. It’s a simple thing to do.
But Polycarp answered:
Eighty-six years have I have served him [the Lord Jesus Christ] and he has done me no wrong. How can I deny the King who saved me.
And because of his faithfulness to his Lord, he was killed. And do you know where he was killed? In Smyrna. It happened after the book of Revelation was written, but it gives you an idea of the afflictions the believers suffered and the great pressure on them to conform and to do what all their neighbours did.
The Lord Jesus went on to refer in verse 9 to their poverty. And, of course, if they didn’t fit in, if they weren’t prepared to swear allegiance to the Emperor and join their pagan neighbours in worshipping the Emperor and the other Roman gods, it may have been very hard for them to make a living. You know, they might have been excluded from the trade guilds in the city where business deals were done. Perhaps no one wanted to do business with them because they were Christians. Perhaps some of them were disinherited from their parents because of their new-found faith. So, they suffered because of poverty.
And they suffered slander. The Lord Jesus says in verse 9 that they were being slandered by those who say they are Jews, but who are not. What did he mean? Well, he’s referring to Jews who were physically or naturally descended from Abraham, but who refused to believe in the Lord Jesus. So, if they were doing their family tree, they could show that they were related to Abraham. However, because they didn’t share Abraham’s faith, they weren’t really members of God’s chosen people. They called themselves Jews, but they weren’t true Jews because they didn’t believe in the Lord Jesus. And their synagogue, where they met for worship, was really a synagogue of Satan, because the Devil was blinding their minds to prevent them from trusting in the Saviour. And according to the Lord Jesus, these Jews were slandering the believers in Smyrna. Well, we teach the children to say:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.
But if you’ve ever been slandered, if anyone has ever ruined your reputation by spreading lies and rumours and gossip about you, then you’ll know how much damage words can do and how much pain they can cause. And, if you read the book of Acts, you can see the trouble Paul got into because the Jews were slandering him.
So, the members of the church in Smyrna were suffering affliction and poverty and slander. Fourthly, in verse 10 the Lord warned his people in Smyrna that some of them would soon have to face imprisonment. Do you see that? Now, the Lord Jesus says here that the Devil would put them in prison. And that’s a reminder to them that standing behind their neighbours who hated them and who were persecuting them was the Devil. He’s the one who stirs up trouble and opposition, because he’s the one who hates the Lord and he hates the Lord’s people.
And then fifthly, some of them would become martyrs. That’s in verse 10 again where the Lord Jesus commanded his people to remain faithful even to the point of death. Well, one Christian historian has written that in the early days of the church every Christian knew that sooner or later, sooner or later, he might have to testify to his faith at the cost of his life, just like Polycarp. Stephen in the book of Acts was the first martyr, but he certainly wasn’t the last. And the believers in Smyrna faced the very real threat of martyrdom.
Encouragement and hope
So, as we read this message to the church in Smyrna, we learn that one of the marks or one of the features of Christ’s church on earth is suffering. Suffering affliction. Suffering poverty. Suffering slander. Suffering imprisonment. Suffering death. Now, we might not have to face death and imprisonment for the faith, but we know the pressure to conform, don’t we? The pressure to fit in with an unbelieving world and to do what they do and to think what they think. And perhaps some of us have suffered in the workplace or in business because of our commitment to Christ and his church. And in school, or college, or in the workplace, people may have slandered us because of what we believe. And, of course, the pressure upon us will only increase over time, because the Devil hates the church and will stir up trouble against us. And so, to his suffering church, the Lord offers encouragement and hope. And he does this in several ways.
First of all, we should remember that he’s with his people. That was the point of John’s vision in chapter 1. John saw the Lord Jesus walking among the lampstands which represent his churches. And the point was that, though the Lord Jesus Christ is exalted to heaven, he’s nevertheless with his people on earth. He’s standing in the midst, watching over them, guiding them, defending them, helping them.
There’s a wonderful example of this in the book of Daniel. Think of when Daniel’s three friends were thrown into the fiery furnace because of their faithfulness to the Lord. And when the king looked into the furnace, he saw a fourth figure with the three friends. And this fourth figure looked like what? Like a son of the gods, he said. The Lord himself, or one of his angels, had come to rescue them.
Secondly, the Lord knows what his people are going through. Look at verse 9 which begins with the wonderful words:
The Lord Jesus was writing to his suffering people and he said to them:
I know what you’re going through. I know your afflictions, your poverty and the slander you face. I know all about it.
And he knows what we’re going through in two senses. First of all, he’s aware of it, because he’s with us. And that’s what people want when they’re suffering, isn’t it? We want someone who knows what we’re going through! We want someone who is aware of it and who can therefore help us and encourage us. We become frustrated with some of our friends, because they’re unable to understand or they don’t know what we’re going through. We try to describe to them the suffering we’re going through. We try to describe to them our fears. But they don’t understand. They don’t really know. But the Lord Jesus Christ knows all about his people, because he’s always watching over us.
But then he knows what it’s like for us to suffer, because he too has suffered, just like us. He was a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. And so, he’s able to sympathise with us in our weakness and send us the help we need.
Thirdly, the Lord encouraged his suffering people by reminding them that though the were financially poor and materially poor, they were nevertheless spiritually rich. That’s in verse 9. And they’re spiritually rich because they have come to possess the unsearchable riches of Christ who pours out upon his people one spiritual blessing after another. So, though his people may not have much in this life, and though their possessions may be taken from them, nevertheless in Christ they receive one good thing after another to sustain them and to help them and to enable them to rejoice each day in their salvation.
Fourthly, the Lord Jesus wrote to encourage them by reminding them that he was able to use their suffering for a good purpose. Look down at verse 10 again, where the Lord said:
I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you….
Now, the Devil intended to do them harm. But their imprisonment would also be a test. The Lord would use their imprisonment as a test to prove the genuineness of their faith. Remember how characters in old movies would bite on a coin to test whether it was real gold or not. Well, suffering for their faith would prove the genuineness of their faith, because genuine faith will always survive the test. And, of course, through their suffering, true believers would cling on to the Lord Jesus all the more tightly, so that their faith in him would become stronger as their suffering continued.
So, the Lord is with his people. The Lord knows what his people are going through. The Lord’s people possess his unsearchable riches. And the Lord is able to use their suffering for a good purpose. Fifthly, their suffering was only for a while. That’s in verse 10 as well where the Lord Jesus tells them that they will suffer persecution for ten days. By saying the persecution will last for ten days, the Lord means it will last only for a short time. So, someone who is enduring persecution may cry out to the Lord:
How long? Will it go on for ever? Will there be no end to my suffering?
And so the Lord Jesus assures his people that the time for persecution will come to an end. Now, perhaps it will last for the rest of this life; but it will not last any longer than that, because beyond the grave there is that fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore which the Lord has promised his faithful people. For this brief life we may suffer, because the unbelieving world is against us, and the Devil is like a roaring lion, who wants to attack and destroy the Lord’s people. He is a deadly sniper who shoots at us when we least expect it. He is a tyrant who will try to crush us. But only in this life. Only in this life will we suffer afflictions and poverty and slander. But in the life to come, the Lord will wipe the tears from our eyes, and there will be no more mourning and no more crying and no more pain, but only joy and pleasures forevermore in the presence of our great God and Saviour. The Lord wrote to his suffering people to re-assure them that their suffering would be only for a time.
And then sixthly, to encourage them and to give them hope, the Lord Jesus promised them the crown of life. That’s at the end of verse 10. Now, this is not so much a king’s crown, but it’s the crown which a victorious athlete would win. And so, for those who persevere despite afflictions and poverty and slander and imprisonment and even martyrdom, for those who persevere and who overcome every obstacle and trouble with the help of the Lord, there is, waiting for them in the life to come, the victor’s crown, the crown of life, which the Lord Jesus Christ will give to his people so that we will not be hurt by the second death. Do you see that in verse 11? The second death is eternal punishment, away from the presence of the Lord. But instead of suffering that, the Lord’s people will live with him forever.
And so, there’s the letter to Smyrna, which is a letter for all of God’s churches in these, the last days. We’re to expect suffering, because suffering is one of the marks of Christ’s church on earth. But the Lord Jesus Christ has written to encourage us and to give us hope so that we will remain faithful to him, even to death. And, of course, he’s able to help us, because he’s the one who was faithful and obedient to his Father in heaven, even to the point of death on the cross. And after he suffered in his body, he was raised to new life and installed as King over all in heaven, from where he watches over us and from where he sends the help we need.