The Letter to the Church in Smyrna
by Paul Gardner
How wonderful it would be if our church received an encouraging letter from Jesus, especially if it contained no criticism. Jesus has no censure for the church in Smyrna but reveals His deep compassion for a people who are faithful to the Lord and suffering persecution as a result.
It is difficult for many of us to imagine what it really is to suffer for the Lord. Yet this letter indicates all Christians should be willing to suffer for Christ. Suffering may take many forms. As this article was being written, I received an e-mail describing horrific persecution of Christians in Orissa, India. Throughout the ages when people have stood clearly for the truth of Jesus Christ and have refused to compromise with other religious ideas, persecution of some sort has broken out.
In New Testament times, persecution usually came from pagans (Acts 19:26–41) or from the Roman authorities (2 Tim. 4:16–18). For Smyrna it also emanated from some in the Jewish community, and thus they were called “a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; see also 3:9). These strong words are similar to Jesus’ words in John 8:44: “You are of your father the devil [who] has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him.” The rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Lord points to the fact that others follow a pseudo-lord — Satan. Satan always stands behind the rejection of the one, true Lord.
Here Jesus speaks of knowing the “tribulation” and “poverty” of this church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:9). Their poverty may have been linked to their persecution. Perhaps they refused to take part in the religious ceremonies of the trade guilds of the day and so suffered economically. The word tribulation or affliction carries the idea of the persecution of Christians in the last days. Jesus used the same word in Matthew 24:9 to refer to the persecution and death that Christians would face for His sake. In Smyrna it was beginning to happen, and the Lord prepares them for worse to come.
However, from the opening verse the Lord brings encouragement. He writes that He is the one who “died and came to life” (Rev. 2:8). The ultimate truth they must grasp is that, since Christ died and was raised, they can be sure that if they die they also will be raised from the dead. This is what Jesus means when He says they will not suffer “the second death” (v. 11). The first death may be at the hands of persecutors, but they will be raised by God and will never face the final judgment, the second death. Indeed, they will be given the “crown of life” (v. 10). Smyrna was famous for its athletic games, so this would have reminded Christians of the “wreath crown” given to the best citizens and athletes. Their persecutors regarded them as the lowest of the low, but soon the Lord will proclaim their victory as they receive life eternal.
But there is more encouragement. Jesus says they are really “rich” (v. 9). This is because, despite appearances to the contrary, they have the treasures of God’s grace and salvation (Col. 2:3). There is also a more obscure encouragement here. The persecution will be limited to “ten days” (Rev. 2:10). The picture is drawn from Daniel 1. Daniel and his friends are seeking to serve King Nebuchadnezzar and yet not compromise with the pagan world. They refuse to eat the meat served by the court. They then set “ten days” as a time in which to test whether they would survive just as well without meat. Under God’s sovereign protection, they survived the test. While the persecution in Smyrna was probably longer than ten days (some persecutions lasted years), nevertheless, Daniel and his friends stand as a comfort to all suffering Christians. If in seeking to live without denying the Lord they find themselves persecuted, they will discover that the Lord is sovereign and has imposed a time limit. In fact, the persecution itself will come to be seen as the Lord’s “testing” (Rev. 2:10), for His people will remain faithful and the Lord will vindicate them.
The fact that many of us do not suffer much surely indicates that we are much too compromised with our world. We separate our world into the spiritual part and the secular part. Christ is Lord of Sunday and when we pray, but not of the rest of the week. This leads to the compromise we so often experience. But the more people integrate their faith into every area of life, then the more they begin to encounter antagonism. I am convinced that if we truly lived as Christ would have us live, then Christians everywhere would experience the attacks of Satan.
This letter speaks to us all and exhorts us to remain faithful, not to fear what we “are about to suffer” and, if God calls, to “be faithful unto death” (v. 10). Let us realize what the cost might be and ask the Lord to help us stand for Him. May the church at Smyrna and the Christians of Orissa be examples to help us break out of our complacency and compromise so that we might seek the crown of life rather than the comforts and acceptance of this world.