The Revelation given to John is the last book of prophecy. Not simply written with a view to the things that will come to pass, as is often explained. Rather, the book as a whole pictures the history of the Church in the world from the viewpoint of past, present and future.
In the first three chapters this Revelation of Jesus Christ deals directly with the Church. Of that Church, our Lord is the glorious Head. What a tremendous figure Christ must be to John, who had known Him, spoke with Him, walked with Him, when He dwelt upon earth in His lowly state. For in every instance, the fact, that Jesus was the exalted Lord is predominant.
Flashing in His hand were the seven stars. His face blazed with an unexcelled brightness, His eyes were a devouring fire, the words spoken, the two-edged sword.
He proclaims Himself to be the First and the Last, which was dead, and is alive. Who knows the works of His own and their tribulations and poverty, but who also knows the enemies in their contempt for Him, His Word, His God.
From a seven-fold viewpoint or aspect of that one Church of Jesus Christ, through the centuries, Revelation speaks and warns us. In reading this testimony concerning her, one does not always find a beautiful picture of her. She is often beset with many sins and weaknesses. We find her departing from the Word, allowing heresies to creep in, becoming unspiritual. She becomes negligent in discipline, so vital to her spiritual well-being, allowing the practice of all kinds of sin of immorality.
Again, we read of men entering the congregation of our Lord, teaching false doctrine, leading godless lives.
Many are the sins, the weaknesses and shortcoming of the Bride of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet, one of the Seven Churches is depicted as being strong. It is the little congregation of Smyrna, living in the midst of all kinds of persecutions. She makes an exception. True, it is a small congregation and, according to the standard of the world, she is poor. She is small and poor and persecuted, yet she is rich. A paradox we may say.
Smyrna as city.
The city itself was known for its riches and had a worldwide reputation for its beauty. Her commerce was the source of her income. And while it is true, that the Roman Emperor* was her ruler, nevertheless, many privileges were given her in distinction from other cities. She was a so-called free city, with its own government, its own courts to such an extent, that hers was the right to order any and all undesirables out of her midst.
No city, with the exception of Rome, was her equal.
Besides, there was a continual flow of money. Commerce and trade were her main assets. Smyrna had one of the few beautifully situated harbors on the Mediterranean Sea—the life-line of the then known world. Smyrna’s complex was literally one of unexcelled prosperity.
The life of Smyrna was, from a religions viewpoint, characterized toy its idol worship. Caesar was declared to be God and received divine honor. And the city as a whole propagated this form of worship. The well-known “Angel” of the congregation, Polycarp, standing before his tormentors, was asked: Why he refused to kneel before the image of the Roman Emperor, and his answer why he refused was sufficient to put him to death.
The center of this idol-worship was found in the Temple built for Caesar. The Jews worshiped in their own synagogues. However, like the rest of the Jews in Asia Minor, so also in Smyrna, these Jews were the friends of the Roman Empire. They were exempted from military service and their synagogues were under the protection of the Roman government. And in the city of Sardis, a great part of the city was set aside officially for them (as token of appreciation). In many places, the Jewish possessions and personal belongings, as well as their Church property (Synagogues and their contents) were protected against robbery; and every attempt to steal any or all their religious documents, was considered to be a federal felony and was punished accordingly by the Roman government.
So also at Smyrna, Jewry was respected and honored. Typical is the decree, if any one disfigured the grave of a Jew, the Jewish congregation possessed the power to impose a fine when such a crime was committed.
All these privileges increased to the Jews because they were faithful in their obeisance to the Roman Emperor. In some of their synagogues, shields and wreaths and inscriptions were engraved telling about the glory of Caesar. In Smyrna the situation grew steadily worse. In the year 195 B.C. a temple was built to honor the “Eternal” city of Rome and in the days of our Lord Jesus Christ, the city received the privilege to build a temple for the Emperor and the government of Rome, for the sole purpose, that the Emperor may be worshiped as a deity.
Thus we understand why the little flock at Smyrna found itself hard pressed through all kinds of persecutions. These so-called Jews worked hand in hand with the Romans and they found the desired opportunity to give vent to their hatred against the sect of the Nazarene.
To be sure, they were Jews, who worshiped in their own places. But their worship was that of the Emperor. Theirs was the negation of the true and only God of the Scriptures, well known to them. The only difference was their building. In that light we understand the expression: “And I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the Synagogue of Satan.” This sin, as to its root, is in principle the “divine” worship brought to Satan himself. Anti- Christian religion will and must culminate in the worship of the man of sin. Its picture we find in Smyrna. Hence, Rome and Smyrna both were not the place for a peaceful life of the congregation of our Lord.
However, it pleased the Lord to place in the midst of all this wickedness his little flock. If we had to decide whether or not Smyrna was a fruitful field for the Church, our answer would have been negative. We would not send our Missionary to a place like Smyrna. First of all, darkness would prohibit our entrance. Secondly, we would say, why labor in a place where at its best, we can expect a little flock without any promise of growth? Thirdly, besides the fact that those people are few in number, they are also poor and will be a financial burden to the rest of the churches. There is no future at Smyrna. That would be our verdict.
That after all, was the verdict of Roman and Jew. Smyrna, the city of riches, was the best place for any one, who placed the business above his religion. The trouble of speaking about religion was not known, because the citizens agreed perfectly, that the worship of Caesar was the best that could be had. What would a Christian expect? Could he live and earn his daily bread and provide for his family by means of a pious talk? He could not. Neither could he escape the attention of both Jew and Gentile. That temple in the city of Smyrna and the synagogues of the Jews took care of that problem. Either or, if he was a Jew, his place would be found empty in the synagogue, or if he belonged to the Gentiles, he was expected to appear in the temple built for Caesar.
Thus the enemy could watch the sect of the Nazarene. The antithesis was visible in Smyrna and the congregation lived out of the principle of that antithesis.
And whereas it pleased the Lord to establish a congregation in the midst of this city, it pleased Him also to speak to her, to encourage her, that she will remain faithful.
Yes, from the side of men, all was misery and suffering. Look at it any way you want, the conclusion remains the same: In Smyrna misery, persecution and even death was the portion of the faithful.
Notice, how the Lord speaks to her. He does not say, I will remove your burdens. No longer shall the enemy persecute you, or, you shall be able to make your own living, in order that you may provide with your own hands for your family. To the contrary, the Word of the Lord is: “Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and you shall have tribulation ten days; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
This means first of all, that the burden of the congregation would not be taken from her. Persecution, bloodshed, all kinds of suffering would come upon her. These words of prophecy were not by themselves words of comfort. They meant more suffering and more hurt as far as the flesh was concerned. It would become more difficult to stay away from temple and synagogue. They called for more self-denial and they called to live the life of faith, and that to the very end. Until death.
Where then is the comfort?
First of all, in the words “I know.” Know thy works, tribulations and also thy poverty. I know it all. The Lord knew not only His people, but also the enemies. The Jews, praisers of God, who blasphemed, the Romans, with their mighty swords, both in league to destroy His own, His flock, His loved ones. Yes, He knew it all. He is the first, the cause of all things, He is also the last, the goal of all things. He alone is the Living one, Lord of lords, and King of kings and their God.
Secondly, because He knew, He can say, I also know you. Hence, He alone can say, you are rich, my poor. Notice, the Lord does not say, you shall be rich. After the brief suffering (ten days) you will inherit all, no, but, you are rich, Now in (poverty, yet being rich. A paradox indeed.
You are rich? But how is that possible? If, looking to the future, to the end of this terrible persecution, this word of comfort did refer, we could understand it. Sure, the suffering of this present time can never be compared with the glory to come. What a little suffering, for suffering is always limited and must come to a speedy end, when compared with the eternal bliss! Yet, the Savior does not point to the future first of all, but to the present.
Now, ye poor, ye are rich.
This is also of necessity. If a man must wait until the hour of his death to be blessed, it would mean joy, with a view to the future. He could live in hope and inexpressible expectation. Not so here, the poor of Smyrna are rich now. Now because the Risen Lord died Himself, but now lives.
That is all that is necessary for them. The knowledge, that He is risen is for them a sure token of their own salvation. No, not the tribulation or the poverty, but the riches of their Lord, the salvation by faith, the assurance of the life eternal now, are their riches.
They belong to Christ Jesus and in Him and with Him they have all things. Now they have an inheritance in heaven, reserved, undefiled, incorruptible and that fadeth not away. For now they belong to Him.
And because they belong to Him, they must also die. Die perhaps at the hands of those, who call themselves Jews “loovers van God,” but they are a synagogue of Satan. It is possible they must die, even as their faithful minister Polycarp, but they shall live. And because, for their Christ it was necessary to walk the way of suffering, the cross, death and the grave, that He might save His own, He also arose.
Hence, He knows also that road, and knowing it He speaks the comforting words, be not afraid. I was dead and behold I live. Ye shall have a light tribulation, light because it is for a short time, but know, that the road of this suffering for your sakes, ended in my glorious resurrection. And when your path ended in death, ye shall also live, live with me in eternal bliss, to the gory of My Father and the salvation of your souls.
All belongs to your glorious Head.
You belong to Him, for you are of Him.
And He shall in the eternal habitations give you the crown of life.