This morning we will turn our attention to Jesus? second letter?the letter to the church in Smyrna. Out of the seven letters that we will study only two of them, this letter to the church in Smyrna and the letter to the church in Philadelphia, hold no critique of the congregations. What?s interesting about these two churches is that they had two things in common?tribulation and poverty. Now, we can?t jump to the conclusion that these two characteristics alone made them acceptable to the Lord. I know many people who are overburdened by problems and short of cash, but they are not godly people. The folks in Smyrna and Philadelphia were poor and troubled, yet they were placing their faith and confidence in their risen Savior.
The specific type of trouble that is pointed out in the letter to the church of Smyrna is quite different than the type of trouble we automatically think about when we hear the words ?troubles and hardships.? The troubles that the brothers and sisters in Smyrna were experiencing were troubles brought about because of their allegiance to Jesus and their refusal to bow their knee to Caesar or to any of the idols in the land.
We in the American Church do not know how to relate to those who are persecuted because of their allegiance to Jesus. We have the freedom to come together and worship, we aren?t banned from professional organizations or labor unions because we are Christians, and none of us here this morning has ever been imprisoned simply because of our faith. I?m grateful for the freedom we have and yet I know of others around the world who have never known this kind of freedom and yet their faith, strength, and passion seems to be so alive.
Than Van Truong was an officer in the Vietnamese People?s Army when he accepted Jesus as his Savior. After his conversion he became involved in the house church movement sponsored by Vietnam?s Baptist General Conference. Truong became a minister and felt led to send Bibles to political leaders in Vietnam with encouraging messages for them to refer to God?s Word for truth and wisdom. Rev. Truong was arrested shortly thereafter. This marked the beginning of the pastor?s 239-day imprisonment, which began in May 2003. He served each day without any official charges brought against him. After pressing the authorities for why he was being held Rev. Truong was told that he was being detained for illegally proclaiming the gospel.
On September 30, 2004, Truong was transferred to Bien Hoa Mental Hospital in Dong Wai Province, where he was locked in a solitary room and injected with tranquilizers. He was diagnosed as insane for believing in God by hospital staff that held a Marxist worldview. While he was in the mental hospital Than shared his faith with staff members and other patients, many of whom were mentally sound, but pleaded insanity in order to avoid the harsh conditions of prison.
Rev. Troung was released from the mental hospital just last month. When he was finally reunited with his wife, children, and congregation he told them, ?If there was no persecution how would I have this opportunity to witness to 44 people who all converted to Christ? I witnessed to policemen, doctors and many people in the mental hospital.?
He was grateful that God had positioned him to reach so many people for Christ. Rev. Truong is the eighth evangelical prisoner/mental hospital inmate set free in Vietnam this year, but many others are still in detainment. (The Voice of the Martyrs ? Michael F. Haverluck)
This is just a sample of the countless stories we could tell this morning of modern-day persecution that is taking place around the world. I read a story this past week of a young man in China who converted from the Communist Party to Christianity eleven years ago. He was raised as an atheist, schooled in atheism, and yet the Lord changed his heart and he felt called to go into the ministry. Bao enrolled in an underground seminary so he could be trained to be a minister. In the five years that he attended the seminary they had to change their location three times because the police found them out. Bao said,
After 5 years of study, the day came for my priestly ordination. There was a lot of tension at that time in my diocese and we risked being jailed by police. Thus, we celebrated the ordination Mass at 4 o’clock in the morning: at that time everyone in China is asleep, even the policemen.
Of all of the stories I?ve read this past week, stories from China, Nigeria, Egypt, Vietnam, the Sudan, and many other countries, I?ve noticed a common mindset: Each of the people were grateful for the opportunity to serve their Savior through their suffering. Father Bao said, ?It is really true that the blood of martyrs becomes the seed of new Christians.? Let?s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Revelation 2:8-11.
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty– yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (Revelation 2:8-11 NIV)
Smyrna was an ancient city in Asia Minor. Some believe that it was first settled about 3000 B.C. The Greeks held the city from at least 1000 B.C. until Alyattes, the king of Lydia, destroyed it in 600 B.C. The city lay dormant, in ruins, for more than 300 years until it was rebuilt in 290 B.C. by Lysimachus and Antigones, two of Alexander the Greats successors. They rebuilt Smyrna as a model city and history testifies that they succeeded in their efforts. Robert Mounce writes,
It boasted a famous stadium, library, and public theater (the largest in Asia). It claimed to be the birthplace of the great epic poet Homer. A famous thoroughfare called the Street of Gold curved around Mt. Pagus (which rose over 500 feet from the harbor) like a necklace on a statue of a goddess. At either end was a temple, one to a local variety of Cybele, known as Sipylene Mother (a patron divinity), and the other to Zeus. The acropolis on Mt. Pagus was called the crown or garland of Smyrna. In New Testament times the population may have been about 200,000. Coins describe the city as ?First of Asia in beauty and size.? (Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p.73)
Smyrna was a harbor city located on the gulf of the Aegean Sea. The city was beautifully laid out as it stretched from the gulf up to the slopes of Mt. Pagus. Along with the temples to Cybele and Zeus there were also temples to Apollo, Asklepios, and Aphrodite on the mountain. With all of the pagan temples Smyrna?s first allegiance was to Rome. John MacArthur writes,
?Smyrna was long a staunch ally of Rome. In fact, its citizens were so infatuated with Rome that in 195 b.c. they built a temple in which Rome was worshiped. A century later the Roman general Sulla?s ill-clad army faced bitter winter weather. When the Roman soldiers? plight was announced in a general assembly of Smyrna?s citizens, they reportedly took off their own clothes to send to them. Rome rewarded Smyrna?s loyalty by choosing it above all other applicants as the site of a new temple dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius (a.d. 26). And when an earthquake destroyed the city late in the second century, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius rebuilt it. (John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11, p. 70)
I hope you are getting a clearer picture of the city of Smyrna so that we can better understand the situation that the church was facing. Let?s take a look at verse 8.
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. (Revelation 2:8 NIV)
Like we saw in the letter to the church in Ephesus, the letter to the church in Smyrna is addressed to the ?angel of the church in Smyrna.? The letter is sent from ?him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.? I mentioned to you last week that in each of the seven letters to the churches Jesus represents Himself by one of the descriptions found in Revelation 1. In this instance we find the description in Revelation 1:17-18.
17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ?Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17-18 NIV)
The phrase, ?the First and the Last? is first found in Isaiah 44:6 where God says to His people,
This is what the LORD says– Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. (Isaiah 44:6 NIV)
God wants His people to know that He alone is God. There is no other Sovereign, there is no other God, and there is only one who is all-powerful?God alone. When Jesus tells the church in Smyrna that He is ?the First and the Last,? He is letting them know the same thing. He is more powerful than the Emperor. Zeus, Apollo, Cybele, and all of the supposed gods of Smyrna are not gods at all. They have no power to save, but Jesus is the first, last, and everything in between for His people.
Jesus tells the church that He is ?the First and the Last,? but He doesn?t stop there?He is also the One ?who has died and come to life again.? John MacArthur writes,
This designation of Christ was to bring comfort to the persecuted believers at Smyrna. Knowing that they were undergoing difficult times, Christ was reminding them that He transcends temporal matters, and, through their union with Him, so should they. And should they face death at the hands of their persecutors, beside them is the One who conquered death (Heb. 2:14) and who promised, ?I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die? (John 11:25?26). Jesus Christ also endured the most unjust and severe persecution anyone ever suffered (cf. Heb. 12:3?4), so He can serve as a compassionate and understanding source of power (Heb. 2:17?18; 4:15). He is the One who addressed this letter of comfort and encouragement to the church at Smyrna. (John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11, p. 69)
What a great reminder for you and me. We may not know religious or political persecution like the people of Smyrna or some of our brothers and sisters around the world today, but we still need to be reminded that our risen Savior is in control of everything that happens in our lives and in the world at large. We need to be reminded that He knows suffering, He has tasted death, and yet death couldn?t defeat Him. Because He was victorious over every obstacle that came His way, even His horrible and humiliating death on Calvary?s cross, we too are more than conquerors through our risen Savior! Jesus knows where we are and what we are going through at this very moment my friends. He knew the situation in Smyrna and that is why He wrote in verse 9,
9 I know your afflictions and your poverty– yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9 NIV)
We talked last week about how Jesus has intimate knowledge of each of His churches, of every one of His people. He knows the afflictions and the poverty of the people of Smyrna. Jesus uses two very interesting Greek works in describing ?afflictions? and ?poverty.? Let?s take a moment to dig a little deeper. The Greek word for ?afflictions? means, ?a pressing, pressing together, or pressure.? The word is used as a metaphor for ?oppression, affliction, tribulation, distress, or straits.? The word is used 45 times in the Greek New Testament. Let me show you just a couple of places where the word appears. In John 16:31-33 Jesus is talking to His disciples when He says,
31?You believe at last!? Jesus answered. 32?But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. 33?I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.? (John 16:31-33 NIV)
Was Jesus right in what He said? Have you experienced trouble in this life? Has heartache overwhelmed you? Are you afraid to face the new day because of the troubles that have come upon you yesterday? You need to know that Jesus has overcome the world, even death, so that you and I might rise above and endure every hardship victoriously.
The same word for ?affliction? is used in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. Take a look there with me and let?s read together.
3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)
For those who are anxiety ridden this morning, for those who are troubled, He is the comforter. For those who can?t seem to find their way out of sorrow, He is the way maker! For those who are blinded by their tears, He promises to wipe every tear from your eyes.
The next word we need to take a look at this morning is the word for ?poverty.? The Greek word for ?poverty? means, ?beggary, poverty, or the condition of one destitute of riches and abundance.? The word only appears three times in the Greek New Testament. Let?s take a look at the other two places. Turn with me to 2 Corinthians 8:2 where Paul speaks about the hardships of the Macedonian believers.
2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. (2 Corinthians 8:2 NIV)
A little later in 2 Corinthians 8 we read that Jesus became impoverished, reduced to the most extreme poverty, for our sakes. Read along with me in 2 Corinthians 8:9.
9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9 NIV)
There was deep poverty present in the church in Smyrna because many of the believers were slaves; others were poor because of their refusal to worship at the false temples. It was difficult to make a living in an antagonistic environment where you were scorned and blacklisted in the business world if you were a follower of Jesus. Jesus says, 9I know your afflictions and your poverty– yet you are rich! The people of Smyrna were only poor materially, but they were rich in faith. They trusted God in the midst of their poverty and persecution.
Doesn?t it seem like the Church in America is just the opposite of the church in Smyrna? We are so rich materially. New churches, magnificent, modern, high-tech edifices of faith are being built every day all over the country. I received a packet from a friend of mine who is a preacher just this past week updating me on what his church is doing. The Lord has blessed them with great growth and now they are implementing a new plan. They are going to a new location on 110 acres and building a new campus. The initial phase of the building project will cost $18.8 million. Man, that?s a lot of money! I?m not knocking it. I?m thrilled that the Lord has given the church favor and that they are touching lives for the Kingdom of God. I share this story with you just to illustrate that we are filthy rich in America when it comes to material possessions.
I wish I could go on to say that we are rich in faith, but you know better than that. When I take a look at the Church in America I get the idea that we visit worship centers of glass and gold, we dress to impress by putting on our Sunday best, but our hearts are no different than those who are just trying to get by on their own. You may say, ?That?s harsh.? I don?t mean to be harsh, but I think it?s time to tell the truth. If you look at statistics there is not much, if any, difference between those who ?call? themselves Christians and those who do not when it comes to marriage and divorce, how we spend our money, what we watch and listen to, teenage pregnancy, and other cultural indicators. Christ came to set us free and yet we are bound by a divided heart.
Let?s move on. The second phrase in verse 9 is, ?I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.? One of the main adversaries and antagonists of the followers of Jesus in Smyrna were the Jews. The Jews are God?s chosen people and yet many of the Jews in Smyrna were willing to go to great lengths to turn the citizens of Smyrna against the church and therefore they were called, ?blasphemers.?
This was not the first time that the Jews had shown themselves to be of the ?synagogue of Satan.? In John 8:42 Jesus addressed some Jews who were quizzing Him.
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8:42-47 NIV)
John MacArthur writes in his commentary about the antagonistic demeanor of the Jews in Smyrna.
Unbelieving Jews commonly accused Christians of cannibalism (based on a misunderstanding of the Lord?s Supper), immorality (based on a perversion of the holy kiss with which believers greeted each other; cf. Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26), breaking up homes (when one spouse became a Christian and the other did not, it often caused conflict; cf. Luke 12:51?53), atheism (because, as already noted, Christians rejected the pagan pantheon of deities), and political disloyalty and rebellion (because Christians refused to offer the required sacrifices to the emperor). Hoping to destroy the Christian faith, some of Smyrna?s wealthy, influential Jews reported these blasphemous, false allegations to the Romans. These haters of the gospel were a synagogue of Satan, meaning they assembled to plan their attack on the church, thus doing Satan?s will. They may have claimed to be a synagogue of God, but they were just the opposite. (John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11, p. 71-72)
As you can see there was great pressure being exerted upon the people of God in Smyrna. If only they would renounce their allegiance to Jesus then their lives would be much easier. If only they wouldn?t be so religious then maybe the Jews would turn their attention elsewhere. If only they would bow their knee before the Temple of the Emperor and cross their fingers behind their backs then they might be able to get their union card. If only?not on your life! Jesus wrote in verse 10.
10Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10 NIV)
Over and over again Jesus comforts His people by saying, ?Do not be afraid.? To the folks in Smyrna He says, ?Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.? Isn?t it interesting? The folks have suffered trouble and poverty and now Jesus says, ?More trouble is coming, but don?t be afraid.? Doesn?t this fly in the face of the feel good theology of our day? Their line of thinking, their theology, goes something like this: Anything that is painful or uncomfortable isn?t from God, God doesn?t want you to experience anything but nice sweet thoughts and sunny days, and if you are suffering then you need to confess your sin so good things will come your way again. Jesus says, ?Do not be afraid?be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life!? The crown of eternal life! Jesus had told His followers something very similar in Matthew 5:10-12 when He said,
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.? (Matthew 5:10-12 NIV)
I don?t know if any of you have ever been persecuted or mocked because of your faith in Jesus, but you may some day. When that day comes remember my friend?remember the brothers and sisters who lived in Smyrna and stood strong for the Lord even though they had to pay a price. Remember the words of our Savior who said, ?Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you?because of Me.? Remember and never relent, never retreat, never relinquish your single-minded commitment to the Savior.
There was a resident of Smyrna who was a student of the Apostle John. His name was Polycarp and he was about 25 years old when the book of Revelation was written. Polycarp could have been sitting in the congregation when the letter to the church in Smyrna was read to the congregation.
Polycarp eventually became the bishop of the church in Smyrna. He fought diligently to preserve the faith and encourage the followers of Jesus to stand strong in the face of persecution. The day came when Polycarp faced the full force of Emperor Pius? hatred of Christians.
Polycarp was a leader in every sense of the word, but his greatest contribution to those who would come after him was his unflinching confidence in Jesus in the face of death. Polycarp was arrested on the charge of being a Christian — a member of a politically dangerous cult whose rapid growth needed to be stopped. An angry, antagonistic crowd tried to stir the Roman proconsul who wished to take pity on the old man. The Roman proconsul took pity Polycarp and urged him to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord”. All Polycarp had to do was confess that Caesar was Lord and he could escape being burned at the stake. Instead of confessing that ?Caesar is Lord,? 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?”
?He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King?? Where will we stand when the heat is turned in the kitchen? The next time trouble comes knocking will we run or will we face the trouble with faith in our King? The next time persecution tempts us to shrink away from our allegiance to Jesus what will we do? I pray this morning that we will take our stand and place our faith in our King instead of look for a way out of the trouble and pain.
If you have never bowed your knee to Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life then I want to encourage you to take your stand this very morning. Won?t you pledge your allegiance to the One who gave His life for you? If you are unwilling to take your stand before those who love the Lord how will you ever have enough courage to take a stand in a world that denies our King? Take your stand.