“And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” (Rev. 2:8-11)
The church in Smyrna was the persecuted church. Indeed, it was a dangerous thing to be a Christian in ancient Smyrna! A city located about 40 miles north of Ephesus and originally founded by Alexander the Great, it has been called “the seat of the Imperial Cult.” While Damascus had her “street called Straight” (Acts 9:11), Smyrna had her “Golden Street”– a thoroughfare lined with infamous temples to Apollo, Aphrodite and Zeus. “The Glory of Asia” was noted for its scenic beauty, and while it was a great commercial metropolis that provided many of its inhabitants with affluence, the Lord’s church in that city was facing great opposition.
A LETTER FROM THE LORD
The purpose of the letter was to comfort their troubled minds and to exhort them to remain faithful. Notice how Christ identifies Himself: “These things saith the first and last, which was dead, and is alive.” Isa. 44:6 has Jehovah declaring, “I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.” By using the same language, Christ is affirming that He is God and is referring to His eternal existence. “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes in the prologue of his Gospel, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). It is with impressive credentials, and the fact of His resurrection, that Jesus encourages the church at Smyrna. Although they are suffering persecution, it is through their faith in Him, the one who conquered death itself, that they can be victorious. Oh, how they needed this letter from the Lord!
THE LORD KNOWS
Christ acknowledges that He is aware of their afflictions: “I know thy works, and tribulation . . .” (verse 9). “Tribulation” is a word indicative of pressure– a burden or pressing down. It must have been a source of great strength to those brethren to realize that the Lord knew of their woeful circumstances! Surely this proves the truthfulness of Peter’s statement in 2 Pet. 2:9, a statement that contains a blessed promise to every Christian: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished.”
When we today are weighed down with burdens and trials, let us take comfort in the fact that the Lord is watching over us with infinite awareness. The following hymn displays how we should rejoice in serving a Savior who possesses an omniscience that enables Him to hear our faintest cries:
He knows the bitter weary way, the endless strivings day by day, the souls that weep, the souls that pray, He knows, He knows. He knows how hard the fight has been, the clouds that come our lives between, the wounds the world has never seen, He knows, He knows. He knows when faint and worn we sink, how deep the pain, how near the brink, of dark despair, we pause and shrink, He knows, He knows. He knows, O thought so full of bliss! For though on earth our joys we miss, we still can bear it feeing this, He knows, He knows.
THE SYNAGOGUE OF SATAN
The Lord also acknowledged that the brethren at Smyrna were living in an area that was a stronghold for evil, declaring that “the synagogue of Satan” was in that place (verse 9). While their persecutors claimed to be followers of God, in reality they were followers of the devil, as they railed against the church with false and hurtful accusations. Jesus makes it plain that it was actually Satan, through the lives and deeds of wicked men, who is the source of the persecution: “Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison” (verse 10).
Here is a principle that we need to understand and appreciate. The devil does his work on earth by using wicked men to spread his lies and do his bidding. Sometimes they are deceived and unconscious enemies of the cross, but the work of the devil is accomplished when men are led by “the spirit of error”– i.e., a disposition that is friendly to error (1 John 4:6).Â Likewise, the Lord has His followers who do His will, and it is through them that the gospel is preached and souls are saved. The principle is clearly stated in the writings of Paul: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
POOR, BUT RICH
After saying that He also knows of their poverty, the Lord turns right around and says, “but thou art rich” (verse 9). How can this be? Surely the Lord’s declaration here flies in the face of the so-called “doctrine of prosperity” that some are preaching today! While it is true that God blesses His people and has promised to provide us with our needs (Phil. 4:19), it is a false claim that all believers are promised financial prosperity. Yet, some preachers will almost make you feel guilty for not being rich in material things, because they say that it is God’s will for you to be as rich as you want to be.
What are the advocates of this doctrine actually teaching? They are asserting that financial poverty eventually becomes proof of spiritual poverty! According to them, a believer is not rich with money because: (1) He does not understand the “laws of prosperity” (as they define them), or (2) He lacks the faith necessary to practice them. However, what Christ says about the church at Smyrna puts things in perspective for us. Many of those who were persecuting the church were living affluent lives while the Christians were poverty-stricken. Yet, the fact that wicked men enjoy prosperity was not a sign of godliness, and the fact that brethren at Smyrna were poor did not mean that they were lacking in their spiritual lives! Jesus said that they were poor, but rich. That means that they were rich in the things that matter most. They were possessors of the “true riches” (Luke 16:11); they were laying up for themselves “treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20); they were “rich in faith” (James 2:5) and “in good works” (1 Tim. 6:18).
FAITHFULNESS IS POSSIBLE
The church at Smyrna is living proof that fidelity is possible even when facing great adversity. In fact, not only is it possible, it is something demanded by the Lord: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer . . . be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (verse 10). Think about it! The Lord acknowledges their suffering and even says that things are going to get worse. Some were going to be cast into prison, as they would undergo a period of tribulation for “ten days”– a number that undoubtedly suggests a short period of time. Yet, they are commanded to not be afraid and to remain faithful! The Lord explains that they are being put to the test to decide their ultimate commitment, and their faithfulness unto death is a necessary condition for receiving a crown of life. The translation by Richard Weymouth renders it like this: “Be faithful, even if you have to die for it.”
If Christ expected them to remain faithful during times of persecution, even if it meant becoming martyrs, is less expected of us today? If eternal life was only promised to those who kept the faith at Smyrna, how can people today believe that children of God may live in willful disobedience without losing their heavenly reward? The idea of “once saved, always saved” is not taught in the Scriptures; faithfulness and godly living are necessary to going to heaven. The Lord’s letter to the church at Smyrna is proof of that fact, reminding us that those who live an overcoming life through Christ will “not be hurt of the second death” (verse 11).
Article By: Billy D. Dickinson