The Letter to Smyrna

Smyrna The Rich Church
Revelation 2:8-117

We come this morning to the second of the seven churches of revelation – last time we considered the letter to the church at Ephesus – the church that had lost it first love – sound in doctrine, faithful in service to the kingdom of God and yet had lost that most essential part of living faith – love. When love goes service becomes something less, when love fades worship becomes something less, when love goes fellowship, both with God and other Christians becomes something less.

I suppose in some ways its like the diamond that no longer catches the light and loses its sparkle, or like the salt that has lost its flavour – the church in Ephesus still looked the part, still functioned but the work had become a chore, a duty,  a burden. You know what I’m trying to describe – the difference between doing something because you love someone and want to please them and doing something because you feel you have too. You know that difference because in some ways its how you relate to this little fellowship of God’s people.

Christ’s command to Ephesus?  2:5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.

The letter to Smyrna has no criticism in it but it does have a command – v10  Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.  A hard command to obey.

The City – Smyrna.
The modern day city in Turkey of Izmir,   an important seaport in the day of the apostle John. about 35 miles north of Ephesus. We don’t know how and when this church began, what we have here is all there is.  What we so know is that it was suffering greatly at the hands of  its enemies and not suffering but enduring.   There is still a witness and testimony to Jesus Christ today in Izmir in modern-day Turkey.

Smyrna  was situated in a beautiful location, it was known as the ‘lovely Smyrna, the crown of Ionia, the ornament of Asia’.  It was a city rich from its trade in Myrrh, indeed that is what the name means.    It was a city of many idols foremost being that of the emperor – the Christian’s refusal to worship the emperor was what brought the wrath of the authorities down upon them.  And those flames of persecution were enthusiastically fed by the large Jewish population of the city.  Smyrna suffered the greatest of all seven churches written to.  

So this second letter is addressed to the Christians living in a beautiful city, a faithful who are suffering all the indignities you care to mention because of their love for Jesus – and so the letter to them begins  And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: 8.

The king who suffered
Can you grasp why this letter begins in this way?  Think about it – brought to mind is the suffering of Christ, of His death on the cross and of His glorious resurrection.  In the midst of Smyrna’s suffering, the vision of Christ that is given to them is of One who suffered, who died, who entered death, but who is victorious over it all.

As they read the letter they are confronted with the vision of the glorified Christ, the eternal God, who like them went through a baptism of blood,  and in death He slew death, and rose again, who is now become the Great High Priest to those who believe in Him – and He can enter into the suffering of our infirmities because of all that.  How they needed to hear that.

Prophetically speaking we are entering into a church period where, for 200 years, the church would be crushed by the iron heel of pagan Roman. As we look down this passage, in v10 (Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.) it is prophesied that for ten days they would be thrown in prison, and would be tested and tried, and they would need to be faithful unto death.

 Now you might not know this, according to the history books there were 10 separate attempts by 10 separate Roman emperors to exterminate and eradicate Christianity from the Roman empire. The tenth attempt was by an emperor by the name of Diocletian, and that tenth attempt lasted 10 years! Christians during those 200 years or so were martyred, butchered, burned for Jesus Christ.  That same Christ who has been given a name above every name and who stands above all and rules over all.
Rich in Spiritual Matters
I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich);  –  When Christ looks at the church of Smyrna He says, “I know … your poverty.” As the world measures wealth the Christians of Smyrna were very poor. The Greek word used here tells us they were more than poor; they were destitute. Their poverty was so great they were reduced to begging in order to live.

The Christians of Smyrna were mostly from the lowest classes of society: the orphans and widows, slaves and servants, the blind and lame. In a city that confesses “Caesar is Lord” those who confess that “Jesus is Lord” would find it hard to make a living for most jobs and business opportunities would be shut off to them. Furthermore, the city and people of Smyrna – incited by the Jews – were openly hostile to the Christian faith, so Christians often had their property confiscated by the authorities or looted by the mobs.

In material wealth and goods the Christians of Smyrna were poor. They had no fancy church buildings or comfy seats; many had no home, no job, no income; they lived on the charity of others; often their only possessions were what they carried on their person and wore on their back. They were first century street people.

Yet, the Lord Jesus can say, “you are rich.” As the world measures wealth the church of Smyrna was poor. But as the Lord Jesus measures wealth the church was rich.

What riches does the Lord have in mind here? In what way is the church of Smyrna rich? The church of Smyrna is rich because she experiences the Lord’s kindness, knows God’s glory, receives the Lord’s blessing, and is aware of the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Rom 2:4; 9:23; 10:12; 11:33). This church is rich because she knows Christ and is filled with the Word of God (Col 1:27; 3:16). This church is rich because she experiences God’s grace and mercy and has a glorious inheritance in heaven awaiting her (Eph 1:7; 1:18; 2:4). This is indeed a rich church!

To the world this wealth is poverty and folly.  But that’s because the world sees in only one dimension – the physical realm. When the world looks at the church of Smyrna all that it sees is a lack of worldly goods and a desperate human poverty. But when the Lord Jesus looks at the church of Smyrna He sees in another dimension – the spiritual. And, in this dimension He sees a church that is rich, wealthy beyond compare.

The church of Smyrna is poor in worldly goods but is rich in Jesus Christ. Rich in Jesus – that’s the only way that Smyrna or Ephesus or east Hull or First church can be rich. We can be rich only in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says, For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. 2 Cor 8:9

He Who is God became a man and took on the nature of a servant; He humbled Himself to the point of death. And, by His impoverishment we become rich – rich in grace, mercy, redemption, glory, and the wisdom and knowledge of God. In and through and by Jesus Christ is the only way any church can be rich.

You’ve probably realized by now that there are two radically different standards of wealth. There is the standard of the world that measures wealth in terms of income, possessions, goods, money, housing, and clothing. And there is the standard of God that measures wealth in terms of the Gospel of grace. There is an earthly treasure and there is a heavenly treasure.

Let me ask you, which standard of wealth is yours? Is your goal in life treasure on earth or treasure in heaven? Do you want the world to say or do you want God to say, “He is rich!”? Is your aim in life a million in the bank or is it growth in the grace, knowledge and love of God?

Certainly by the standards of our society we are not rich. By the standards of a great many in the world we are rich –  With our running water, central heating, washing machines, fridges, freezers, cars, TV’s, etc. we are indeed rich in comparison to a great many but let me ask you are rich by God’s standard – Are the treasures of the Gospel and kingdom as richly yours as are the treasures of this world? Or, have you sold your soul for the riches of this world? Think about that!

Rich in Faithfulness
A Christ looks at the church of Smyrna and He can also say, I know your -, tribulation,  Greek word ‘thlipsis’ – it is the word which conveys the idea of pressing out the grapes until the juice comes forth. In classical Greek language it was used of a huge rock that would crush anything beneath it, and here the word is used in the singular, and that means this is a great tribulation that these people are experiencing a great trial, serious trouble. ‘I know your tribulation’, They are not forgotten, not uncared for – I know, says the king of Heaven, your tribulation.
I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. –  The Jews of Smyrna attacked and persecuted the church. The Jews were upset about the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord.” For the Jews there was only one Lord and that Lord was not Jesus. In their eyes it was blasphemy to worship a Galilean peasant who had died a criminal’s death.  They thought themselves to be God’s children, but they weren’t they were of their father Satan.

One of the Christians from Smyrna who studied under the apostle John was called Polycarp, he lived between 70 AD and 150AD and rose to prominence in the church in Smyrna some of his writings still exist. Polycarp was arrested on the charge of being a Christian. Amidst an angry mob, the Roman proconsul took pity on such a gentle old man and urged Polycarp to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord”. If only Polycarp would make this declaration and offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue he would escape torture and death. To this Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Steadfast in his stand for Christ, Polycarp refused to compromise his beliefs, and thus, was burned alive at the stake.

Historians tell us of the Jews’ eagerness in aiding the martyrdom of Polycarp that even though it was the Sabbath they rushed to gather the wood for his burning.

Do not fear any of these things.  Hard not to, isn’t it?

Rev.2:10  Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

There’s no talk of deliverance here, there’s no talk of the miraculous – whilst God can do it, it’s not mentioned here – but Christ is telling them: ‘You’re going to have to go through it all and more still! You might be destitute, but there’s more to come!’. It’s frightening, isn’t it? Yet please note, we don’t find any complaining among them. I know I would be complaining, wouldn’t you?

The Lord counsels them first to be fearless. We fear many things, don’t we? Yet they were facing things that we could understand them fearing. We need a reality check as we study this passage of Scripture this morning: these Christians were facing prison, they were facing death, and the Lord said to them literally, ‘Stop being afraid!’. Imagine this for a moment: they are being put in prison for something they didn’t do, they are being slandered – imagine if that came to your door tonight, and you were carried off to your local prison for something you didn’t do, would you be afraid? If there was a rope at the end of it all, or an electric chair? Yet they were told not to be afraid.

Why should they stop being afraid? Because the sovereign Lord has it all under control. Because the Lord their God is with them, because the promises of God surround them, because the Love of God motivates them!

you will have tribulation ten days – whatever period of time this points to we know that it will end. This tribulation will not go on forever – God has set a limit on it! One of the theories going around at the moment is that it speaks of the persecution that would fall on the church from 10 Roman emperors and history does show that persecution was used by 10 emperors – Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximinus the Thracian, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian and Galerius and Julian the apostate. Under each there was a time of persecution

The assurance is given that there is a limit to the activities of Satan. He will persecute and the church will suffer for “ten days.” But that’s it. Then the time of persecution is over and Satan’s chance is finished. It is God, not Satan, Who has the last word.

Be faithful, even to the point of death. –  the Greek says, “Continue to be faithful.” They have been faithful in the past; now they are urged to be faithful in the present too, in the face of new and terrible afflictions. They are urged to be faithful and true to the Lord even if it means death.   And they were. This church, her members, her bishop, they were all faithful. Many, like Polycarp, were faithful “even to the point of death.”

What a rich church! Even under persecution they did not abandon spiritual riches for worldly riches. They stayed with the riches of the Gospel.

Today, thank God, we in the Uk are not tested and persecuted in our faith the way Smyrna was. Yet, I often wonder, if it was a choice between Christ and my life, or between Christ and my family, what would I do? What would you do?

We may not be persecuted today, we may not have to make the choice between the riches of the Gospel and the riches of the world, yet we too are called to be faithful. You see, the same enemy attacks us that attacked Smyrna – that ancient enemy, the Devil. His methods may have changed but his goal is the same – to make us fall from the faith and the Lord. He may not attack us head on as he did with the church in Smyrna but he still attacks, nibbling away at the foundations of our faith, trying to make us compromise a little bit here, a little bit there, until eventually we no longer have a faith to uphold.

“Be faithful,” our Lord says to us. “Be faithful, even to the point of death.” “Be faithful, in spite of ridicule.” “Be faithful, whatever the cost in money or time.”

And, if we are faithful, we too are a rich church, a rich people, in whom may be found all the riches of the glories of God in Christ.

Rich in Salvation
Any church, any Christian, that is faithful to Christ the way Smyrna and Polycarp were, receive from Christ “the crown of life   Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. James 1:12

Not only those who are tested but all those who are God’s children, all those who have the true riches of the Gospel, all those who are true children of Abraham, will receive the crown of life. Theirs is the victor’s wreath. Theirs is the joy, theirs is the glory, of life everlasting. Theirs are the riches of heaven and the richness of life with Christ.

Jesus’ final word is He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death. The second death is explained to us at the end of Revelation (Rev. 20:14,15; 21:8). The first death is physical death. The second death is the eternal torments of hell fire. Those who are faithful to Christ will never have to fear the second death. Of course they won’t have to! Christ suffered the torments of hell so they don’t have to. And, theirs is the “crown of life” which no one can snatch from their hand.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

What does the Spirit say? He says that a rich church is a church that is filled with the grace and Gospel of Christ, a rich church is a church that is faithful to God even in afflictions, a rich church is a church that receives life everlasting.

On the 18th  April 2007 five Muslims entered a Christian publishing company, and killed three believers in the south eastern province of Malatya, Turkey – 300 miles from Antioch where believers were first called Christians. One of them was a man called Necati, and he was buried in his home town of Izmir, Smyrna. His wife says these words – wives, could you say this? – ‘His death was full of meaning because he died for Christ and he lived for Christ. Necati was a gift from God, I feel honoured that he was in my life. I feel crowned with honour, I want to be worthy of that honour’. Do you know what the pastor said? I think at the funeral, he asked the world: ‘Don’t pray against persecution, pray for perseverance’.

Do you hear, have you heard, what the Spirit says to the churches?