Jesus Christ Greets His Church in Smyrna (v. 8)
The City of Smyrna and the Church There
Smyrna is situated 35 miles north of Ephesus on the shore of the Aegean Sea. The city had carefully laid out streets, the largest public theater in Asia, a library, and a stadium. Smyrna was famous for its athletic games. Due to its natural harbor and extensive trade, Smyrna was wealthy. Smyrna remained virtually untouched by foreign enemies until the Muslim wars of the 14-15th centuries. The last strongholds in Smyrna were overrun in 1402. Today Smyrna is a Turkish city known as Izmir, and boasts approximately 200,000 inhabitants, and is the second largest city in Asiatic Turkey. It is the only one of the seven cities addressed by John that still exists.
Smyrna was proud of its loyalty to the Roman Empire. In 195 B.C., Smyrna was the first city to erect a temple in honor of the goodness of Rome. Smyrna’s loyalty to Rome was rewarded in A.D. 26 when the city was preferred over ten other cities as the site of a temple in honor of Tiberius, the Senate, and Livy. Emperor worship was dominant and deep-seated in Smyrna. Roman patriotism was one reason Smyrnan Christians faced persecution. The gospel came to Smyrna likely from the Ephesian missionary base (Acts 19:10,26). Luke’s account in Acts indicates rapid evangelization of the area, it is likely that this took place before A.D. 60.
First and Last, Crucified and Raised
Our Lord warmly greets the congregation in Smyrna as "the First and the Last, he who was dead and came to life." "First and Last" is taken directly from the opening vision of his glory (1:11) and indicates Christ's total sovereignty over men and nations. Our Lord created human life and history; he will consummate it. As we face many difficulties in our race and warfare for Christ, we are encouraged and hopeful and consistent as we believe our Lord’s absolute control over all things. Whatever men threaten, Jesus Christ our Lord rules over all. "He who was dead and came to life" is the gospel in one line. Christ humbled himself unto death but was raised from the dead and now rules at the Father’s right hand. We keep ourselves pure from the world-spirit of sin as we live in union with Jesus Christ who died to the power of sin (Rom. 6:1-6). We hold fast to our profession in the face of Satan’s assaults and our own discouragements as we keep the eyes of faith fixed upon our resurrected Savior. If we die for him, we shall live and reign in him. Death is not the great unknown for us. Jesus Christ has triumphed over the grave, and death holds no more dominion over us. We must not fear it, but welcome it in God's time as a friend bringing us to Christ’s heavenly kingdom. Thus, our Lord’s letter to Smyrna began as we must – with the gospel of the crucified, raised, and reigning Savior. He is all our life, strength, and joy.
Jesus Christ Commends His Church in Smyrna (v. 9)
I Know Your Faithfulness, Suffering and Service in Poverty
The Lord Jesus had nothing against the church in Smyrna. I pray he has no quarrel with us, but let us examine our hearts before his open word and leave no corner unsearched. There is nothing more cheering to the soul than to know that his grace is overcoming our sins and that our lives are pleasing to him! He commends the Smyrnan church for its faithfulness in the midst of poverty and persecution. We should seek to serve our Lord with cheerfulness and joy, not avoiding inconvenience but offering to him our best. The Lord Jesus does not look down upon us because we may not have as much as others or may be different in personality. He looks upon our hearts and wants us to love him and serve him with all that he gives us. He has done so much for us; he is worthy of all our love and service. Smyrnan poverty is likely tied to the tribulation they experienced in standing for Christ. Given the strong commitment to emperor worship in the city of Smyrna, Christians were likely excluded from some trades or paid less. Participation in the local trade unions required acts of allegiance (prayers, oaths, sacrifices) to the patron god of that guild. No Christian in good conscience could participate. Perhaps their goods were taken from them, as we learn of the Hebrew Christians (Heb. 10:34-35). Those who would not swear allegiance to the Roman emperor when asked to do so lost their civil rights and often their property. Despite their poverty and tribulation, the Smyrnan Christians did not give up the fight. Like Moses they esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt (Heb. 11:26).
Their faithfulness testifies to the power of our Savior’s grace to keep us in the worst of circumstances. His grace is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9-10). It is a great blessing to be able to live our confession when our faith is tolerated, our civil rights protected by law, and our jobs secure. It is a challenge when confessing him means job loss, persecution, and theft of personal property. We must pray and support believers in other parts of the world who face these hard realities on account of their loyalty to Jesus Christ. He favors, protects, and rewards those who lose all for him. In the end, it will prove he is worthy of every sacrifice and worth far more than all we might give up for his sake. We should also bless him for our civil and religious liberty. We should defend these gifts and support those who defend our liberties and serve our Lord without fear even if they are curtailed or taken away. We do not follow Jesus Christ, gather for worship, and proclaim his truth because the state gives us permission. We do so because Jesus Christ is King. Any king or state that does not rule by his law and recognize his crown rights is a thief of God’s glory and an enemy of the true King, Jesus Christ.
Even though the Smyrnans were poor, the Lord calls them rich! They may be trash in the eyes of their enemies, but in the eyes of God, they are rich, precious gold, his prized possession. It is very important for us to know that God views us as his adopted children and heirs of his kingdom. Otherwise, we shall be slaves to man’s opinion and be tempted to deny our Lord to gain peace on earth. The Smyrnans were precious to the Lord because they possessed the pearl of great price. They were “the queen in gold of Ophir” standing at the right hand of the Lord of heaven (Ps. 45:9). Despised by the world, we are God’s prized possession. If we have nothing, we possess everything in Christ (1 Cor. 3:21-23). We must not therefore trust in earthly riches, which are fleeting (Ps. 49:16-20; Prov. 11:28). We must in our wealthy context take seriously our Lord’s warning to the rich – that we cannot serve the Lord and money (Luke 16:23). Wealth is often given to God’s enemies as a prelude to judgment (Ps. 73:12-19); this life is all the good that unbelievers will ever enjoy (Luke 16:25). Knowing how deceived the world is on this point, we must be persuaded that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:6). It is the poor man that the Lord often makes richest in faith and godliness (Jam. 2:5). It is better to have little and fear the Lord, than to be wealthy and alienated from him (Prov. 15:16). Love of money and covetousness is one cause of the present judgment upon this nation. The Lord is teaching us again that it is better to be poor, persecuted, and faithful in Smyrna than to be rich, self-contented, and worldly in Atlanta.
I Know Your Enemies: Slandered by False Jews
When the Jews as a nation rejected their promised Messiah, a veil descended upon their soul. They lost their light, their place in God’s kingdom, and their nation – the very thing they feared would happen if Jesus Christ prevailed (John 11:48). They hated Christians. The New Testament records that the Jews and especially their leaders took a leading role in accusing Christians of crimes before the Roman magistrates. The Jews should have welcomed the conversion of the Gentiles as the fulfillment of the almost 2,000 year old promise: “In your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). But no, the large Jewish colony in Smyrna slandered the believers. We do not know the specific charges, but the usual one was stirring up division in society, worshipping unlawful gods, depraved nocturnal rites, and withholding worship from the emperor. These were serious charges in that age, for the emperor was the manifestation of God on earth. To confess that Jesus is Lord was to commit treason.
Sadly, the Jews had already committed treason against heaven. They confessed before Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” Rejecting the Scriptures (John 5:47) and Jesus Christ as the heir of the covenant (Matt. 21:38), they had become a synagogue of Satan. Instead of a gathering of the faithful, the unbelieving Jews had become a gathering of the devil. The Jews professed to be God’s chosen people, but to be a Jew requires more than physical descent from Abraham. True Jews are those who are inwardly circumcised, whose hearts have been regenerated by the Holy Ghost and made obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:25,28-29). Accordingly, the believer in Christ, Jew or Gentile, is the true Jew, the descendant of Abraham, the heir of all God’s promises to him (Gal. 3:26-29). God’s chosen people are believers in Jesus Christ; his holy nation is the church of his Son; his royal priesthood are those who call him by faith in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:9).
Jesus Christ Warns His Church in Smyrna (v. 10)
You Are about to Be Attacked by the Devil
Jesus honestly warns the church that suffering is coming. He commands them not to fear this time of intense testing. It is part of their inheritance in Christ -- the cross of suffering as well as the crown of life. “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us” (2 Tim. 2:12). Suffering is necessary to exalt the sustaining grace of Christ and purify our faith as gold. The devil will stir up this persecution. “He will cast some of you into prison.” Prisons in the Roman world were nasty places where the accused awaited trial or death. “Ten days” indicates a short, defined period. The persecution envisioned will be of a severe but limited duration.
Be Faithful unto Death
How would we respond to such a warning? Run away? Start shooting? Our Lord’s command is simple. Be faithful unto death. Be faithful – give the good confession. Do not be afraid, which is a command. And unto death – you are commanding us to die for you, Lord? These are sobering words in our soft times, but they are clarifying. Do not be afraid of what men do to you, even of those who kill the body (Matt. 10:28). Our Lord forbids fear, so there is an implied promise that he will help us overcome fear as we walk with him. Too many of us live by fear – of the past or future, of being found out for some sin we have committed, failing in our duty, or being disapproved of by others. Do not be afraid of the devil’s hangman, the Lord commands. Your entire responsibility is to be faithful to me. Hold fast to my word. Do not shrink back from confessing me. Do not be embarrassed or apologize for believing my word. Do not be afraid, college student, of your professor’s ridicule because you believe the Bible, or your business partner’s slander because you will not work unnecessarily on the Sabbath. Be faithful. Be ready to bleed for Christ, for he shed his precious blood for you. If we suffer with him, we shall reign with him. It is love for Christ that empowers dying faithfulness, his power that sustains us.
Crown of Life and Unharmed by the Second Death
“Crown of life” is the reward for overcoming. “I will give” – we are to think seriously and soberly of the moment when the Lord Jesus himself, with his own hand, places the victor’s crown upon our head. It is a victor’s crown, not a compromiser’s crown. To obtain the crown, we must bear our cross and be faithful unto death. There is too little courage in speaking for Christ in these times because there is so little affection for him. We will but lazily seek and never suffer for what we do not love first in our lives, but if we love Christ, we want to please and honor him. If we desire all men everywhere to honor him, we will speak up for him, defend his truth, and by his grace suffer for him. Hear his words on this. If we have “ears to hear,” we will take his words into our hearts and minds. His word will deliver us from fear. If we are faithful unto death, we will not be harmed by the second death. This death is hell’s fiery judgment. Deliverance is not earned by faithfulness; faithfulness is God’s seal upon the redeemed by grace. Satan cannot harm us. It is a glorious thought. “Resist him” (1 Pet. 5:9); “resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7); “that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). Our Savior conquered, and he will make us conquerors of sin and Satan. It is his legacy for us, his power in us, and his pledge to us.
Smyrna and Our Local Congregation: Ready to BLEED
It is a serious matter to be told that the devil is stalking you and ready to pounce. And imagine being told this within the first twenty years of your congregation’s existence! The Lord often throws his new gift of faith into the fire (1 Pet. 1:6-7), to show that it is not of human origin. We have been so quick to try to tame what is untamable – the new birth (John 3:8) – to make earthly what is heavenly. But here the Smyrnans were, and perhaps we are closer to this than we might think. How are we to live as Christians when suffering is imminent? First, we must believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose to conquer death. We cannot be harmed by the second death, and therefore we have nothing to fear from men or the devil. If we believe in the resurrected Savior, our lives and priorities will be transformed, and fear will be defeated in our lives. Second, we must lay up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20) by setting our affection upon Jesus Christ (Col. 3:1-3). We cannot give up all for him if we do not love him. “Peter, do you love me?” Why ask this question three times? Yes, Peter denied three times, but the Lord Jesus intended to brand Peter’s heart with this truth --- it is love for Christ, not personal fortitude and resolve – that gains the victor’s crown. It is love that gives resolve. We shall follow our loves, and we cannot lay down our lives for Christ unless he is our first love and pleasing him is our first delight. O, Lord Jesus, grant us this love again, for how can we bleed for you, how can we overcome the pressures of materialism and covetousness, unless you are our treasure?
Slander brings another element into our sufferings – to suffer because you are accused of being an evil-doer – like our Lord was (1 Pet. 2:20-21). We would be more willing to suffer for Christ if we esteem God’s good opinion more than man’s. Paul wrote that we cannot be a servant of Christ if we are trying to please men (Gal. 1:10). Some of the Jewish leaders would not confess Christ, even though they believed in him, because “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). Therefore, if we are to prepare for suffering patiently, we must expect the devil’s attack. He hates honest, humble confessors of Jesus Christ (Rev. 12:17). He will malign, even raise up trouble from within peace-loving congregations so that Christ’s servants enjoy little peace. Since we expect his attack, we must follow the apostle and learn to “die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31). In little ways, practice a legitimate self-denial, not choosing the easy way, avoiding hard things because they are hard, or pampering the flesh. It will make it very difficult to suffer for Christ if we have made an idol of avoiding hard things in our lives. Instead, let us embrace every opportunity to “offer Christ that which costs us something.”
I cannot imagine being told by our Lord, “You are about to die. Be faithful unto death.” Wait – where is the roadmap out of Smyrna? Is there not another way? It never seems to have come up. Instead, our Lord tells them do not fear death. Most Christian fear springs from a lack of applied theology, or very poor personal theology. We do not see the glory and power of Jesus Christ and draw near to him. We do not trust the total, loving, good, and fatherly providence of God, his pledge to watch over our lives and work good for us. Or, we are nurturing sins that quench courage – anxiety about the future or the fear of man – so we are living with other gods and loves in our lives than the Lord alone. Instead, think of the moment coming in your personal history when the Lord Jesus will crown you. Think of the whole church gathered together before the throne, clothed in white, singing with innumerable angels, and receiving a collective crown – only to cast it back down at the feet of Jesus Christ, as he announces the beginning of heaven, inaugurates the new heavens and earth, and lives and loves with us forever. This is the way not to fear death, not to fear persecution, not to fear man and the future. If the worst happens, it brings us straight to our Savior and to the crown of life. He rules over all.