The Chuch in Smyrna
John Bennett, Pinxton, Nottingham [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
REVELATION 2. 8-11
THE CHURCH ADDRESSED
‘And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna’, v. 8a.
Unlike the church at Ephesus we know very little of this assembly in Smyrna. We have no record of it being established in the Acts of the Apostles.
Historians tell us that the city lay just thirty-five miles north of Ephesus on the west coast of Asia on the Aegean Sea. Sometimes described as ‘the Ornament of Asia’, or ‘the Flower of Asia’, it was said to be the loveliest of all cities. VINCENT tells us, ‘It was one of the cities which claimed the honour of being Homer’s birthplace and a cave in the neighbourhood of the city was where he was said to have composed his poems. The Smyrnaeans erected a splendid temple to his memory. Smyrna’s fine harbour made it a natural commercial centre’. Alexander the Great built a large fortress overlooking the city that still survives today. The city received its name from one of its principle products, the sweet perfume called myrrh. This gum resin was used in making a perfume, one of the uses for which was the embalming of the dead.
But all this external beauty and perfume hid the reality of religious corruption. Through its grand array of religious buildings almost all the pagan gods were given place and prominence. As the inhabitants foresaw the rising power of Rome, they built a temple to include pagan Roman worship. Today a large sprawling modern city covers the ancient one but is said to be the most religiously diverse and relaxed city in Turkey and a thriving Christian work is maintained there.
THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST
As with the church at Ephesus, the features of Christ identified in verse 8 refer back to the description given of the transcendent Lord in chapter 1, but for Smyrna the link is with verses 11 and 18.
‘These things saith the first and the last’, v. 8b.
In this title the Lord introduces Himself in words that clearly indicate His deity. As ‘the first’, He existed prior to all created things. As ‘the last’, He will remain when all things have passed away. As the eternal Son of God He transcends time, and creation and all that pertains to it. Echoing the words of Isaiah chapter 44 verse 6, Christ establishes Himself as unique, the only and all-powerful God. The city of Smyrna may pride itself on its array of religious buildings and pagan gods but nothing can compare with the God of these impoverished and persecuted believers! Here, WALTER SCOTT in his standard work on the Revelation, says, Christ is ‘the Rock against which the utmost power of the enemy is futile’.
‘Which was dead, and is alive’, v. 8c
J. N. DARBY translates this first part of the phrase as ‘who became dead’. As such, it indicates more than the reality of the Lord’s death. Although He really did die upon that cross He did not die because His life was taken from Him. He died because He willingly subjected Himself to death, Phil. 2. 8. Rather than being completely powerless, as men assumed, He was in complete control of events. He ‘bowed his head, and gave up the ghost’, John 19. 30. In the statement ‘and is alive’, we have the truth and victory of resurrection. Resurrection is a fact! It is also a demonstration of the divinity of the Lord as the Conqueror of death and him that had its power, Heb. 2. 14.
These believers would be called upon to be ‘faithful unto death’, v. 10, but they could face death resting in the assurance that they were safe in the hands of the Lord Jesus. He had been there too. He has ‘the keys . . . of death’, 1. 18. Death should hold no terror for the believer for it is a defeated enemy!
‘I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich)’, v. 9a.
We can, like the saints at Smyrna, take great comfort from these words of the Saviour. He knows! Things that others may not notice or appreciate are noted in heaven. There is a fullness of knowledge as the Lord assesses the circumstances in which his people are found. Nothing escapes His gaze. But we also know that as He sees He also appreciates what these circumstances really mean. He has experienced tribulation and poverty in their fullest measure.
The word ‘tribulation’, W. E. VINE notes, has reference ‘to sufferings due to the pressure of circumstances, or the antagonism of persons’. As we see from the next verse, the antagonism was from those who were the tools of Satan himself. The pressure of circumstances was their imprisonment, awaiting the decision of an unjust judge before being condemned to death. Are there not parallels with the experience of the Saviour? Satan’s involvement in the violent opposition that the Lord faced was clear enough in John 8. 44. He was imprisoned, falsely accused, declared innocent but crucified as if guilty, Isa. 53. 7-8. He can truly say as no other, ‘I know thy . . . tribulation’.
The word ‘poverty’ means more than a low level of resources. It means ‘destitution’, the same word being used of the Lord’s poverty in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 9. In terms of what the world counts as important in the trappings of wealth and prosperity, the believers had nothing. They had lost everything. It is likely that the citizens of Smyrna had closed off to them the avenues of employment, the support of society, and the means of trade in order to reduce these saints to the level of beggars. Such are the realities of a callous world in its opposition to Christ! But, says the Lord, ‘thou art rich’. In the world’s estimation all that matters is the material and earthly, but the riches that the believers enjoy are not temporal but spiritual, heavenly and eternal, Eph. 1. 3. Oh, to possess a true evaluation of what the world offers, for what we have in Christ is beyond calculation!
‘And I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan’, v. 9b.
Added to the social and material pressures that the saints were under there were also the railings of the Jewish community in the city. ‘The word “blasphemy” is practically confined to speech defamatory of the Divine Majesty’, reports W. E. VINE. As such the slander that was being aimed at the believers was really directed towards the One whose name they sought to uphold in testimony – the Lord Jesus. The text indicates two stark contrasts. We have the divine estimate of what these people said and also what they were. They may see themselves as the synagogue of ‘the Jews’, worshipping God in keeping with the tradition of their fathers, but they were in reality, ‘the synagogue of Satan’. They had rejected Christ and were, as a consequence, vociferous in their opposition to His people. Like their predecessors, the extent of their opposition saw no bounds, ‘When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own’, John 8. 44.
THE CRITICISM LEVELLED
Although some may see the opening words of verse 10 as a rebuke, I feel that for this assembly there are no negatives, no condemnations. It is not that they were in any way perfect, for the perfect local assembly does not exist. As long as it is made up of human beings still in the flesh it will have weaknesses associated with it. However, here the Lord only commends. In the light of the intense persecution that these believers faced they needed support and encouragement and this is what the Saviour gives. But perhaps also we should understand that in times of persecution there is often a greater purity amongst the Lord’s people.
THE COUNSEL GIVEN
‘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’, v. 10.
Fear brings alarm and fright, and it is this that the Lord counsels against. Fear may well be the natural reaction to their circumstances and could be something likely to consume them when confronted with the Lord’s comments in relation to their future. They were to be imprisoned, to suffer trial, and, possibly, be put to death for their faith. What a prospect! The Lord exposes the true source of the opposition – this onslaught would be a result of satanic attack but the period of their suffering would be confined only to His permissive will. In the midst of such intense pressure it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that He is still in control. They can be reassured, He has set a limit upon the period of their suffering. As in the case of Job, Satan can go so far, but no farther!
If the period of their suffering had a definite limit, it would appear that the extent of their suffering did not. Some would be put to death; but in that extremity the Lord promises, ‘I will give thee a crown of life’. Some expositors see this as the martyr’s crown. Others, linking the reference in James chapter 1 verse 12, see this crown as something that is given to every believer and not simply to the martyr. The encouragement that the Lord would seek to give to these suffering saints is that nothing can rob them of their true life – eternal life in Christ. Men may destroy the body but they cannot rob us of eternity with the Lord, 2 Cor. 5. 1.
THE CALL FOR ATTENTION
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’, v. 11a. NKJV
For comments upon this phrase that is repeated across all seven letters, the reader is referred to the previous article in this series.
THE COMPENSATION PROMISED
‘He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death’, v. 11b.
‘Death, physical and painful, may be meted out by men, but the believer cannot be touched by that which is unimaginably worse: “the second death”’ writes JIM ALLEN. There is a limit to the pain and suffering which the ungodly can bring to the life of the believer. For the sinner, set in their ways of opposition to God and His people, there is the fearful judgement of God which is unending. For the believer, physical suffering and pain is terminated by death. Those affected by the second death face wrath that is conscious and unending. How blessed to be assured that the overcomer shall not and cannot ever be hurt of the second death!