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 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.
His name was Polycarp. Church history tells us that he was the angel in the church at Smyrna. He was arrested and brought into an amphitheater brimming with people eager to watch a man burn alive. The proconsul said to Polycarp, “Revile Christ, and I will release you.” Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme Him, my King, who has saved me? I am a Christian.” The proconsul, addressing the crowd, declared, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.” The frenzied spectators shouted, “Let him be burned!” The wood necessary for the public burning was brought. Polycarp asked not to be fastened to the stake: “Leave me thus. He who strengthens me to endure the flames will also enable me to stand firm at the stake without being fastened with nails.” The flames consumed his body.1
The letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8- 11) is encouragement for a church facing present and future persecution. The words of Christ in this letter cheered the saints in their present suffering and comforted them regarding the dark days ahead. Could it be that Polycarp remembered Christ’s promises as the flames engulfed him?
Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor, northwest of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, Smyrna was a city bustling with business and industry. But the church in Ephesus was far different than the one in Smyrna: Ephesus was a church doing well outwardly, but she had left her first love and was rebuked by Christ (Rev. 2:1-7); Smyrna was a church struggling outwardly, but she was spiritually rich and received no rebuke from Christ. The church’s condition Regarding her outward condition, Smyrna was a persecuted church: “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty…” (v. 9). Tribulation is a squeezing inflicted by persecutors, leaving the church only a small place in the world. Referring to future persecution, verse 10 uses the word “tribulation” again, and also speaks of suffering, the suffering of persecution: “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….”
It was certain Jews in Smyrna who subjected the Christians to this suffering. These Jews are identified in verse 9: “…I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” They said they were Jews, but were not: nationally they were Jews, but they were not true Jews in the spiritual sense. In fact, Jesus calls them “the synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). It is possible that these men who said they were Jews gathered in a real synagogue in Smyrna, but more important is what Jesus means by this phrase: they belonged to Satan and were governed by him. This reminds us that Satan was behind the persecution, attacking and seeking to destroy Christ’s body on earth. Regarding their beliefs, these satanic Jews maintained that they were the people of God, being the physical descendants of Abraham. They also taught that the Messiah had not yet come. And so, when the Christian church in Smyrna proclaimed that Jesus was their King and that He had already come, this did not sit well with the Jews. In hatred for the Christ who had already come, this Jewish element persecuted the Christian church.
This persecution likely took the form of economic penalties, for Jesus also describes the church as materially poor: “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty…” (v. 9). That is, the poverty of the church was a result of persecution by the Jews. What might this have looked like? First, the wicked Jews would slanderously contend that the Christian confession of Christ’s kingship was a threat to Smyrna’s rulers. Then, the magistrate, at the encouragement of the Jews, would impose economic penalties on these “dangerous” Christians in order to minimize their place and influence. This, in turn, would result in destitution for the church—not enough work, little to eat and drink, hardly habitable homes, a very small church building or none at all, and other marks of poverty.
Even more persecution was to come. Jesus speaks of the future in verse 10: “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.” Imprisonment and death lay in the church’s future. Perhaps the slanderous and satanic Jews would eventually convince the authorities to imprison the Christians, even to kill them. Dark days loomed.
So it is today. Already now the church in some places must suffer sorely for Christ’s sake. For many of us in the West, the present persecution is yet mild. However, the day is coming also in the West that the ungodly world, spurred on by the slander of the false church, will severely persecute God’s saints. It might not be long before the courts of the land consistently decide against Christian business owners for taking biblical, principled stands. The days may not be far away that companies begin terminating, in the name of tolerance and sensitivity, those who will not sign documentation approving the wicked lifestyles of others in the workplace. Perhaps sooner than we think, buying and selling may become very difficult for the “narrow-minded and dangerous” Christians. Persecution in the form of economic penalties and pressure! All of this, a part of the road paved for the man of sin himself, who will strangle the people of God financially, imprison them, and kill them.
The church in Smyrna: as to her outward condition, persecuted and poor.
But she was rich! That is, as to her spiritual condition, she was rich: “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich)…” (v. 9). United by faith to the living Christ, they were partakers of all His blessings. Rich indeed! In the furnace of affliction, they were patient and joyful; in contrast to the church in Ephesus, the church in Smyrna had not left her first love, but burned brightly in zeal for Christ. And note: she was a church in persecution that was rich, something we see repeatedly throughout church history. Why is this? God uses persecution for the strengthening of faith in Christ; the stronger faith is, the more the church increases in these true riches that flow from Christ. In the dark days to come, may this also be said of us, by God’s grace: impoverished and suffering…but truly rich!
The comfort given
Jesus accompanies the announcement of future persecution with a beautiful word of comfort for the church in Smyrna and for us. The overarching message is, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer…” (v. 10). The persecution may be severe and the enemies strong, but you need not be frightened by them.
Comforting for the church is how Christ identifies Himself in verse 8: “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; these things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive….” Christ says that He is the first and the last. Christ stands above time, including all the persecution of the church included in that history. The Lord Jesus controls all things that happen, even the oppression by the evildoers.
In this connection, verse 10 states that the church will have tribulation ten (the number of completeness) days (indicating brevity). The meaning of “ten days” is that God has determined, in His good pleasure, a definite period for persecution of the church by the devil—and when that certain time is up, the devil will be stopped. Christ is sovereign.
The Savior also identifies Himself as He which was dead, and is alive. He entered into death for our sins, the third day arose from the grave, and has power over death and the grave. He lives forevermore. Older generation, you need not fear as you consider your children and grandchildren passing through the dark days ahead. Younger ones, you need not dread the persecution to come. We have a Savior who is in control, working all things for the good of His church! And we have a Savior who lives!
Jesus further cheers His own by saying that there is purpose in their suffering: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried…” (v. 10). It is certainly true that the devil’s purpose with persecution is tempting us to repudiate the truth and deny Christ. But verse 10 is referring to God’s purpose, namely, that the saints may be tried in prison. This trying is the testing of faith. Perhaps you are familiar with the process of testing gold in fire: fire burns away the impurities of the gold, and the gold is shown to be genuine. Like that, our faith is tested in the fires of persecution. Those fires burn away the impurities of our faith, and our faith in Christ is shown to be genuine. This we must remember when wicked men mistreat us: there is purpose in it. Christ will accomplish His purpose, and it will be good for us—this we know!
The sure promises
Says Jesus, “…be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (v. 10). Faithfulness is loyalty to the Lord Jesus, even in the extreme adversity of persecution. Faithfulness is to confess His name, even though it means suffering; never to deny Him, even though this means so much pain. Faithfulness is loyalty to Him, confessing His name, even if it means death. We are not faithful in our own strength, but only by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. In the mighty power of Christ, who is the “the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive,” all the elect will certainly persevere to the end.
Says Jesus, “…be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (v. 10). A crown, a wreath, was given to the victor in an exhausting and rigorous athletic contest. The church in Smyrna experienced the rigors and exhaustion of persecution that would only wax worse in the future. He tells this church in the throes of suffering, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” Jesus does not give a physical crown, of course, but a crown of life. The crown is eternal life—not earned by our faithfulness, but earned by Jesus alone. He who “was dead, and is alive” gives eternal life to His own.
And there is another promise of Christ: “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” (v. 11). The first death is physical death, which we will experience unless the Lord returns first. It may be that we, or our children and grandchildren, face a violent first death. Harm may come to our bodies, but fear not, for this first death is “not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life” (LD 16, Q&A 42). The second death, we are told elsewhere in Revelation, is the lake that burns with fire and brimstone—hell. He that overcomes in the power of Christ alone in the battles against sin, the world, and the devil shall not be hurt of the second death. What a glorious promise of our Savior!
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches!
1 This story, including the quotations, is related in The Church in History by B.K. Kuiper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988. Reprint), 9-10.