Dear Suffering Church (Rev 2:8-11)
John has been commissioned by Christ to write these letters to the seven church in Asia Minor at the end of the first century AD. What he writes addresses the specific needs of these particular churches, but Jesus also has in mind the broader, universal Church which spans time and place.
The Lord is informing the churches of persecution that they will face. Some of that tribulation has already begun, but a more intense form was to begin shortly. And, in light of the rest of the book, that persecution continues throughout this present age until Christ returns.
The first letter was written to Ephesus, a church that was faithful in doctrine but loveless in practice. This second letter is the shortest, but it is packed with encouragement. The church in Smyrna, like Philadelphia, receives no condemnation.
Smyrna was along the western coast of Asia Minor, located roughly thirty-five miles north of Ephesus. They likely heard the gospel through Ephesus (Acts 19:10). The population of Smyrna was similar to Ephesus (both roughly 200,000). It was a prosperous city, strategically located for trade, a land with fertile soil. The location is now the third largest city in Turkey, called Izmir.
Like Ephesus, Smyrna was known for its idolatry and emperor worship. The city had temples dedicated to several gods, including it’s own local goddess called “Cybele”. Her image was imprinted on their currency.
The city was also proud of being faithful to Rome. Before Roman authority was established, Smyrna had dedicated a temple for the goddess of Rome (195 BC). By 26 AD their loyalty to Rome was further secured with a temple for Emperor Tiberius.
Read Rev. 2:8-11.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are the defining attributes these saints are to keep in mind as they prepare to endure their own suffering (8). Christ is our Savior and our example. We look to him for salvation and sanctification. He died for us, and he lives for us now!
I. A Savior Who Knows (9)
Your Tribulation and Your Poverty
The hardship believers were experiencing was in contrast to the success of the city. This may indicate an economic persecution upon the church for their faith. The worship of the emperor was intricately related to the commerce in the region. It makes sense that their faith would have a negative impact upon their financial stability.
And yet, Jesus considered them rich. When our lives are free from the love of money we can be content with the riches of Christ’s presence (Heb 13:5). When we hold our possessions lightly, we can joyfully endure the plundering of our property (Heb 10:32-34). This is the example of the Macedonians whose “extreme poverty…overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Co 8:2).
Missionaries to third world countries frequently attest to the spiritual strength of the physically poor. It makes us long for their joy and contentment with so little material possessions.
This consistent interpretation is under attack from those who preach the false prosperity gospel. Advocates of this heresy preach that economic and physical health are the result of little faith. Those who possess a strong faith will never be poor or sick.
Were Benny Hinn or Creflo Dollar able to go back in time and visit Christians in Smyrna, they would have had a hard time condemning them for their lack of faith. Instead of condemnation, Jesus commends them for being spiritually rich. They may be economically deprived, but they possess riches beyond comprehension.
It isn’t surprising that the devil would plant some enemies to attack the church in Smyrna.
This refers to Jews who had rejected the Messiah. It is not enough to be circumcised, a true Jew had the inward faith that corresponded with their outward association with God (Rom 2:28-29). So these “Jews” were considered imposters of worship. Similar language is found in the Qumran scrolls with reference to apostate or hypocritical Jews who had abandoned fundamental doctrine.
Hendriksen, “How anyone can say that the Jews of today are still, in a very special and glorious and preeminent sense, God’s people, is more than we can understand. God Himself calls those who reject the Savior and persecute true believers ‘the synagogue of Satan’. They are no longer His people.”
Slander involves the improper use of our tongue to share evil reports. It is gossip and lies meant to speak ill of others. These false “Jews” were making malicious accusations against Christians in Smyrna. They were stirring up strife and seeking to defame believers.
Emperor worship was not enforced for Jews, so they wanted to make a clear distinction between themselves and Christians. Doing so cut Christians off from religious freedom, but by condemning Christ’s followers, Jews were cutting themselves off from their true Messiah. It’s possible that the present and forthcoming tribulation the Christian church would experience was the result of these accusations from Jews.
Some thirty years prior, Peter had written to them about being prepared to make a defense for the hope that is in them. They were to testify with gentleness and respect so that their slanderers might be put to shame (1 Pe 3:15-16). Their response was to be Christlike.
Paul would point out the poverty of Christ’s humanity which brought riches to the Corinthian believers (2 Co 8:9). We can learn from the way Christ endured suffering. He didn’t sin with deceit or retaliation, but entrusted himself to a Sovereign God (1 Pe 2:20-23).
As much as we should expect to experience persecution, we should be all the more confident that the Lord will never forsake us (2 Cor 4:9). Even when our enemies are rejoicing at our calamity, we can look to the Lord and wait on him knowing that he hears us and takes care of us (Mic 7:7-8). When you are faced with the hatred of your enemies, remember how much the Lord delights in you (Ps 18:17-19)!
Because Jesus knows our suffering, he is uniquely capable of bringing us comfort.
II. A Savior Who Comforts (10a)
Do not fear (Neg)
We can be confident in the Lord that he will protect us from evil men (Heb 13:6). It is the perfect love of the Lord that casts out fear (1 Jn 5).
The Old Testament allusion is, once again, to the book of Daniel. Daniel encouraged the steward that had been assigned to him to test him and his friends for ten days to see if their diet would have any negative impact upon their appearance. This would have encouraged the saints that their sufferings would be relatively short, but that doesn’t mean it would be easy to bear.
Warning of future imprisonment
Roman prisons were not used as places for longterm punishment. They were utilized as temporary holding places while a person awaited their trial or execution. Prisoners were lowered into cisterns that were filthy and crowded. They were treated as if they were already guilty.
It appears their imprisonment will only last a short time (“ten days” is likely symbolic). But the experience would certainly be a harrowing one–which included martyrdom for some.
Wilcock, “There would in the goodness of God come an eleventh day, and all would be over.”
Peter had encouraged them to resist the devil knowing that a brotherhood of saints suffer all around the world (1 Pt 5:9). And that encouragement is just as important for us to hear today.
Christians will be hated and persecuted, but our fear should not be in man who can only do physical harm (Mt 10:22, 28). Nor should we fear Satan, because he is ultimately restricted by God’s sovereign purposes. Although the devil seeks to destroy our faith, the Lord uses his attacks to purge and purify his people. Those who persevere under trial prove the genuineness of their faith in the one who was victorious over sin and death.
Not only do we receive comfort, but faithful believers are also promised reward.
III. A Savior Who Rewards (10b-11)
The faithful will receive the crown of life (Pos)
The crown of life is promised to all who remain faithful. There were several types of crowns. With the popularity of athletic games in Smyrna, it might describe the perishable wreath the competitors won (1 Co 9:25). But, more often than not it refers to the crowns that kings and royalty would wear. Various fabrics and metals were used to embellish the crown with color and style. Kings often had several crowns representing the various countries they had conquered. Cybele, the goddess of Smyrna, was depicted with a crown that was decorated in the shape and fashion of the city’s magnificent buildings.
Believers are promised something even better than these. They will receive an unfading “crown of glory”, a crown that is imperishable. Their “crown of righteousness” is rewarded to them by their righteous judge (2 Ti 4:8). This crown is a metaphor of eternal life (cf. Re 2:11). Everyone who perseveres to the end will receive eternal life. But, for some, it will cost them their present lives.
Polycarp was a student of John and may have been in the congregation of Smyrna when this letter was first received. He would have been 27 years-old at the time. Tradition tells us that John consecrated him as the bishop there (which must have been shortly before/after Revelation was written). If he was already the bishop, then he would have been the pastor reading the letter out loud to the congregation (Re 1:3). On February 23, AD 156, some sixty years after this letter was received, Polycarp was sentenced to be burned at the stake for refusing to recant his faith in Christ.
Jewish enemies were involved in the persecution. These “Jews” were willing to violate the Sabbath in order to collect wood for the fire. He was led to the amphitheater to be executed in front of thousands of people. Instead of declaring “Caesar is Lord” he testified “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” The winds kept the flames from burning hot enough so Polycarp used the extended time to proclaim the gospel until a soldier thrust a sword into him in order to silence him.
And, in that instant, Polycarp entered into an eternity whose glory far outweighed his suffering, regardless of how excruciating it was (Rom 8:18). Believers are never promised to escape earthly suffering. In fact, the crown of glory always seems to follow the cross of suffering. And even if our body is perishing, we can be confident that God is preserving our soul.
He who has an ear, let him hear.
All believers are addressed by this letter. If we have received the Spirit, then we are able to hear what he is saying to us.
The conquerers will not suffer the punishment of hell
Second death = Hell. It is called the “lake of fire” (Re 20:14) where Death and Hades are thrown along with all who do not repent (Re 21:8).
Polycarp, “You threaten me with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment.”
Because Jesus conquered death in his resurrection, we can face death as conquerers knowing that he loves us and promises that nothing can ever separate us from him (Rom 8:35-39).
Do not fear the consequences of suffering which cannot remove the future reward of the faithful.
The Lord is reigning even now, and he will continue to reign until all his enemies are under his feet (1 Co 15:25). The same power that enables Christ to subject all things to himself will also transform our bodies to be glorified like his at the resurrection of the last day (Php 3:20-21). Until then, we should expect suffering. Our trials are preparing us for an eternity in glory.