May 5, 2008

Revelation 2:8-11: The Letter to Smyrna

Last week, we learned about the church at Ephesus—doctrinally pure but which had lost 1st first love. The church was commended for its pure doctrine, for recognizing and confronting false teachers and not putting up with evil.

Our Lord wants us to be doctrinally pure. He wants us to study His word, discuss with each other Who He is, what He is like, what He reveals to us about His will. He wants us to be able to recognize false teaching and to confront it, but He also wants us to feel the love for Him that He feels for us: complete commitment; enthusiastic love that puts no one else first; a love that enjoys His presence just because of Who He is; a love that we can know is with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

At the end of our discussion last week, we listed some things that the letter to Ephesus reveals as God’s will for Christians and for the church:

To labor for His name’s sake and have patience in the face of trials

Not to put up with evil

To be able to recognize false doctrine and reject false teachers

To persevere in our faith despite temptations and opposition

To remember your first love: the excitement of and dedication to loving and serving Him

To do the works we did in the beginning—more than doctrinal correctness, but also to worship, evangelize, love Him, and live for Him.

Today, we want to see what the letter to the church at Smyrna reveals about the church and God’s will.

“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: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death’” (Revelation 2:8-11).

Smyrna was an important seaport city on the Aegean Sea with a population about 250,000. Forty miles northwest of Ephesus, Smyrna was commercial and trading center. Today, on the site is the Turkish city of Izmir with a population of about two million people.

In 200 B.C., Smyrna allied itself with Rome and became part of the Roman empire. The people of the city were awarded full Roman citizenship (unlike the regions Rome conquered, where the people were ruled by the Romans but did not become citizens). This distinction provided special difficulties for the young Christian church at Smyrna, because worship of the Roman emperor was the official state religion in the Roman empire. Worship of the emperor as a deity was required.

When Rome occupied a territory, such as Israel, a certain concession to local religious practices was granted. Israel was not part of the Roman empire, but was an occupied territory under Roman rule, and emperor worship was not required of the Israelites or the Christians in conquered territories. However, Smyrna was part of the Roman empire, not an occupied territory. A Roman citizen was free to worship other gods, as long as he or she also worshipped the emperor.

Roman citizens were required to burn incense to Caesar as a god and their master and lord, making the emperor, in effect, the chief or highest god in the eyes of the state. By doing so, the citizen proved loyalty to Caesar and the Roman government, allowing him or her to work, trade, and own property. To refuse was considered treasonous.

Those who did not worship Caesar were not allowed to take part in the economy and earn a living. They had little status as Roman citizens and were regarded as disloyal. They were barely tolerated by the government, looked on with suspicion, and persecuted by the government and their neighbors.

With this as the backdrop, in the opening lines of the letter to the church at Smyrna Christ reassures them that they worship the only God (v.8): “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life;” The reminder of His status (“the First and the Last”) stresses that He is the only God that really exists.

He points out that He was dead and came to life, something which no pagan god could claim, proving His claim to be the only God, and, as these Christians knew from the gospels and the epistles of Paul and others, His resurrection was a guarantee of eternal life for His disciples.

In verse 9, the letter also refers to some of the conditions affecting the church: it was enduring tribulation, meaning intense suffering. The Smyrnan Christians were poverty stricken, primarily because they were not willing to worship Caesar. The Christians were among the poorest of the poor. Anyone who did not worship Caesar had no means of earning a living, no right to own property, no access to courts, limited protection of the law, and lived under intense and government-sanctioned persecution.

The temptation must have been great to give in, worship and burn incense to Caesar, and gain the right to live in peace without persecution and work for a living. However, in spite of their living conditions, Christ reminds them they are rich.

There was a large Jewish population in Smyrna, and they joined in the persecution of the Christians. Christ’s reference to them as “those who say they are Jews and are not” may be an indication that they, too, worshipped Caesar. There also is another possibility, found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:29). In other words, Jews who rejected Christ were no longer regarded by God as “Abraham’s seed”; that is, no longer regarded as chosen of God.

Notice how the suffering and persecution of Christians at Smyrna do not exactly remind us of the western idea of Christianity, which is so culturally stained, preoccupied with wealth, lethargic doctrinally, and politically correct.

More suffering to come (10)

As if their current extreme poverty were not enough, Christ informs them that some would be imprisoned. In the context of the letter and the conditions, the imprisonment would most likely occur because of their refusal to worship Caesar as a god. The imprisonment would be “that you may be tested” or “tempted.” The word here is the same word we found in James 1:2—“Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” It means the trial of person’s fidelity, integrity, or virtue; an enticement to sin, whether arising from inner desires or outside circumstances.

For the Smyrnan Christians, it most likely refers to the temptation to turn away from Christ and worship Caesar, an act that would enable them to be released immediately from prison and begin earning a living. Christ tells them, however, not to fear the things they are about to suffer. “You will have tribulation ten days” is His way of stressing how temporary persecution and suffering will be, compared to eternal life with our Lord.

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” One of the leaders in the church at Smyrna when Revelation was written would become a stunning example of being faithful unto death. He was a young man named Polycarp, who was in his mid-20s at this time and had been a student of John. He later became bishop of the church, which by the mid-2nd century encompassed several congregations in the region.

Years later, in 155 A.D., Polycarp was in his mid-80s and in prison because of his faith. He was given the choice to deny Jesus and worship Caesar or burn at the stake. Polycarp refused to deny Jesus, saying he had served Jesus all his life and was not going to turn against him now. The fire at the stake failed to kill him, and a Roman solder stepped up and killed him with a sword.

Jesus promises the “Crown of life” to those who are faithful unto death. This is a recurring theme in the New Testament as a reward for faithfulness. It is a euphemistic reference to eternal life with God in heaven, which is promised to all authentic Christians, who, because of the authenticity of their faith, will never deny it. Being “faithful unto death” is evidence of real faith.

Christians shall not be hurt by the second death (11)

“He who overcomes” (that is, the one who, through trials and persecutions) has demonstrated his or her faith to be genuine. The term “second death” is found here in verse 11 and in Revelation 20:6,14. In Revelation 20:14, the second death is described as the casting of the lost into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:6 is a clear statement that Christians shall not suffer this fate and will, instead, reign with Christ. The thrust of the letter to Smyrna is that none of this suffering can compare to the joy of the eternal reward waiting for them.

Conclusion

It is difficult for us to imagine the conditions of the Christians in Smyrna, but I can understand the temptation I’m sure many of them felt. I assume many people there initially drawn to Christ had turned away in favor of being able to earn a living, buy food, and just not be hassled by the people and the government.

From this letter, we know that those in the Smyrnan church who had true faith continued to persevering despite the hatred toward them, the prisons, their inability to earn a living, and all of the other persecutions they suffered.

Like Polycarp years later, many of them—perhaps a great many of them—were tested and their faith proved. Faced with prison and execution only because of their faith, they were faithful unto death. Remember that our faith and our faithfulness are not just the result of our resolve and our efforts. Faith also is a gift from God. The Smyrnan Christians are a moving example of a people joined to Christ and His saving work, and whose faith God sustained through suffering and even death.

So, in conclusion, we can know from the letter to the church at Smyrna that God may allow us to suffer for our faith and endure trials, testing, and temptation. He also reminds us that our future eternal presence with our Savior and Lord far outweighs any temporary trials or worldly price we pay because of our faith.

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