SMYRNA, FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH
A Study in Revelation 2.8-11.
This is the second of the seven letters sent from the risen Lord Jesus Christ by the hand of the Apostle John to seven Churches actually existing in Asia in the first century. They are not only concerned with those first-century churches, they are concerned with all churches at all times, so we regard them as first-century letters to twentieth-century churches. This is the letter which is addressed in the first place to the Church at Smyrna, and unlike the city of Ephesus, the city of Smyrna in modern Turkey still exists, and is a thriving city. It goes today under the name of Izmir; it is about thirty miles or so north of where Ephesus once was. Today Izmir, or Smyrna, has a population of half a million people, and if Ephesus was, at the end of the first century, the first city of commerce in Asia., then Izmir, or Smyrna, as it was then, was the first city of beauty. It was a city that swept up a hillside from the Aegean Sea to the brow of a hill, and on the brow of the hill, there were great, beautiful, noble and elegant buildings which were known as the ‘crown of Smyrna’. They formed a ring around the higher part of the city. Another thing about the city of Smyrna at the time this letter was written, is the fact that it was a city fanatically loyal to Rome, the governing power of the day. The people of Smyrna were faithful allies of the Caesars; their loyalty was such that it had become proverbial. That loyalty of course did not make it any easier for a Christian church to be formed or founded in that city, because Rome was never a friend of Christ or of Christianity or of Christians; but there was a Christian church there. At the end of the first century, the Gospel was preached there, and light from the Lord Jesus Christ shone into the hearts of some at least of the population of Smyrna.
We really know nothing about the origin of the Church at Smyrna, for certain. It may have been formed during Paul’s third missionary journey. In Acts 19.10, we are told that “all they that dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” and Smyrna was in Asia. We do know, however, that the great King and Head of the Church established His Church there, because He had a people in that city, and at the end of the first century, that church existed, and the great Head of the Church wrote this letter to the angel, or the bishop, or the pastor of that church. He said to John, “Unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.”
1. The Author of this Commendation.
As in all the letters to the seven Churches, we find first the element of commendation, and this commendation is enhanced by the character of the Person who gives it. Here it is given by One who describes Himself as “the first and the last, which was dead and is alive”. There is Christ’s self-designation. You see, it is twofold; He is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. No one ever went before Him because He is from everlasting, and no one of His standing shall ever follow Him because He is to everlasting. He said, “Before Abraham was”, before God ever entered into covenant with men, “I AM”. These self-descriptive words, “the first and the last” emphasise the eternal existence of the Writer of this letter. They emphasise that He was and is entire, complete, wanting nothing. That is the Person who wrote words of comfort and help to the Christians in Smyrna, the One who had eternal existence, “the first and the last”. That is the character of the Commendator. There is also this about the character of the Commendator- “He was dead and is alive”, He passed from life to death and then through death to life, the life that should never end. He has the keys of the unseen world, and controls it; He knows what it is to die, and He writes here to a Church that knew what it was to die, because death had been busy in their midst, so, bearing in mind their bereavement, He said, ”I was dead and I am alive again”. That is quite in harmony with the need of those to whom He writes; to people who were going through the valley of the shadow, these were words of encouragement and uplift. Now let us come to the commendation.
2. The Silent Commendation.
The commendation of the Church at Smyrna is twofold, it takes two forms. First it is a silent commendation. The silent way is a very telling way of commending this Church. By silence I mean this; that Christ commends this Church by the very absence of complaint. Scan this letter from beginning to end and you find that Christ brings no charge, no censure, no indictment against the Church at Smyrna at all. How different from the Church at Ephesus! There is no “nevertheless” in this letter as in the letter to Ephesus, no case of listing the things commended, and then following it with, “nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee”. Christ had no charge to make, no complaint to bring, no criticism to level.
What a church this church in Smyrna must have been! It does not mean that it was a perfect church; there are no perfect churches for the simple reason that there are no perfect church members, but this was a great church, against whom Christ had no word of complaint. From which I deduce that therefore, it is possible for churches today not to come under Divine censure, not to come under Divine displeasure, but rather to give pleasure to the great Head of all the churches, for after all, as churches, we are here to shine. We are a candlestick, we are a lampstand; the oil is provided and we are here to shine. If we are not to come under the censure of our Head, then we are to shine, and not to smoke or to sputter as a candle sometimes will. Here, I submit, is a silent, but eloquent commendation, not one word of complaint from the Head of the Church.
3. The Expressed Commendation.
The commendation is not only silent, it is also expressed, and the expressed commendation of the church at Smyrna is a commendation in parenthesis; it is a commendation in brackets. It is a commendation in few words, in verse nine. ‘But you are rich.’ So we must ask the question, what were the circumstances in which, as a rich church, this church functioned and operated in the city of Smyrna? The Lord Himself tells us all those circumstances in the context of which this church was rich, and in the context of which this church bore its witness. He says in verse nine, “I know”, and in this ninth verse, He says twice over, “I know”. He knows, because He is in the midst of the churches. He knows because He is within the church, and He knows because He is the One who has eyes as a flame of fire. His absence of complaint is not due to ignorance.
So we ask, What does He know? We find it all in verse nine. He says, “I know thy works”. Like Ephesus, the church in Smyrna was all life, it was an active congregation. There was no slumbering depression, there was no sleep of death; it was a virile, a working church. He knew their works, and in the midst of their works, their concern, their activity for the Lord; they were rich.
Not only that, He says, in verse nine, “I know your tribulation”. Not our little trials and troubles, not the very little things. The word tribulation here refers, in the Greek, to huge stones that were used to grind flour or to press the juice out of the grape; all done by a grinding pressure: so the tribulation at Smyrna was a grinding tribulation. The Christians in Smyrna were sorely pressed, even to the point at which they were persecuted, for the population of Smyrna, not to say the authorities in Smyrna, were doing to these Christians what Saul of Tarsus did to Christians long before, when he persecuted them even unto death. So when Jesus said, “I know thy … tribulation”, He was not thinking of little and light troubles and setbacks; He was thinking of the grinding pressures of persecution to which these people were subject.
The angel, or the bishop, or the pastor of this Church at Smyrna at this time was a man named Polycarp. Polycarp was the man who was commanded by the authorities to say, “Caesar is Lord”, and he refused. Again he was told, “Reproach Christ and you will be set at liberty”, and then came his famous reply, “Eighty and six years have I served Him and He never did me any injury, how can I laspheme my King and my Saviour? Hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian”. You are not surprised to know that he was burnt at the stake. These were real tribulations!
Eusebius, one of the greatest of the early Church historians, lived about 150 years after this event, and he tells us about Christians in Smyrna whose muscles, sinews and intestines were cut out and exposed to view because of their adherence to Jesus Christ. “I know thy tribulation”. Paul said to Timothy, “All who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution”. When Jesus said to the Church at Smyrna, “I know thy tribulation”. He was not thinking of the common cold or the slight headache. Yet, in the midst of their tribulations, they were rich.
But not only that, still in verse nine, the Lord says to them, “I know your poverty”, but it is in the midst of their poverty that they were rich! Their poverty was the inevitable consequence of their persecution. The Christians in Smyrna, because of their stand and their witness, were thrown out of work. No work would have been given them; no income therefore would have been taken in by them, and they were therefore reduced to penury. This is not spiritual poverty He is speaking of here. They actually had little or nothing to live on; they were reduced to beggery; no one would employ them because they were Christians. We hear a great deal today about discrimination in relation to employment as well as other things. Here was discrimination because they were Christians, they were not eligible for employment. They therefore were poor, and Christ said, I know your poverty, but you are rich.
Not only that, and still in verse nine, the Lord said to them, “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan”. Now blasphemy here means slander, and slander means evil speech, untrue speech, the slander and the reviling to which the Christians of this little church were objected because they were Christians. They were subject to character assassination as well as to physical assault and social poverty. These character assassins were not pagans, they were not Romans; they were people who obstensibly worshipped the same God as the Christians. They were the Jews from the local synagogue in Smyrna; they were the accusers of the brethren. They vilified the Christians before the courts and before the common population, and before all the authorities. So the Christians had little chance of getting any justice at all. The Jews, of whose race came Jesus, vilified the followers of Jesus, so much so that Jesus said to them in this letter, they were not Jews of the synagogue or the gathering of God, but rather they were Jews of the synagogue, the gathering of Satan. The god of this world had blinded the minds of so many members of the Jewish synagogue, and had inspired the barbarous hostility and persecution to which the Christians were here subjected, and Jesus says to them, “they say they are Jews, and are not”. ‘They say they are of me, but they are of the devil. They belong to the synagogue of Satan. Why? Because they are touching the people of my choice.’
When Christ said, ‘I know your works, your tribulation, your poverty, your slander, your vilification,’ this was not simply a knowledge of observation, it was also a knowledge of experience. He knew what these things were, and He knew at first hand. He who was rich, for our sakes became poor, and so the Author of this letter to the Christians at Smyrna was able perfectly to identify Himself with them in their sad circumstances as they passed through the shadow and through the shade. So it is with all God’s people. The Lord is able to identify Himself with us in our weaknesses and in our miseries and in our times of temptation, even when we are in those very states and conditions that make us feel we have utterly alienated ourselves from Him. He knows! There is no trial or trouble that we may have to face that He knows nothing of; He knows our frame, and He is able to have fellow-feeling with us, for He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.
Well, here are the circumstances under which this Church operated, circumstances of persecution and poverty and slander. I say therefore, what a precious word of commendation the Lord had for this people in Smyrna. ‘I know your poverty, but you are rich. I know you are persecuted, harried, harassed, but you are rich. I know you have no barns or storehouses, no bumper harvest to sell, no eating and drinking and merry-making, but though you have that deprivation, you are rich.’ “But thou art rich”. What does He mean? He means they were rich in faith; He means they were saved people. He means they were His own people. He means they were a people of His choice, they were rich in faith, they were rich in all the graces of the Spirit. They were rich in love, in endurance, in hope and in light-bearing; and it was because of their light-bearing as a candlestick or a lampstand that they were being persecuted. The population of Smyrna did not like this light, and so they tried to extinguish it, and Christ says to His people in the midst of all those circumstances, ‘I know, I know all that, and I also know this, that you are rich in faith, and your faith shines, and your candlestick will not be removed.’
How then, do we measure riches? Are we still so much in the dark that we measure riches in terms of material possessions, however legitimate those possessions may be? Are we rich as a Church, as a people, possessing the richness of Christ, for that is the important thing? The Smyrna Christians were poor, yet making many rich. They had a ministry among the population, in spite of all their sufferings. They had nothing, and yet they possessed all things. They were rich; Jesus Himself said so. They were like those to whom Paul had said before, for all things are yours, the world is yours, life is yours, death is yours, things present are yours, things to come are yours, all are yours, and ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. Indeed they were rich!
And here is an interesting thing. The word ‘rich’ here in Greek is the word from which is derived our English word plutocrat or plutocracy. Now, plutocracy is government by the wealthy, and a plutocrat is a man who has power because he has wealth. What our Lord says here to these poor Christians in Smyrna is that in a spiritual sense they, the poor Christians of Smyrna, were actually the plutocrats of Smyrna; they were really the wealthy people. In the eyes of the population, they were small and despised, but in the eyes of the Lord Jesus they were the plutocrats of the city. “But thou art rich”. Oh, that something of the extraordinary wealth of these poor Christians of this first-century Church might be found in this twentieth century. May the great King and Head of the Church have for us not only no word of condemnation, but may He exhibit to our souls the statement from the Bank of Heaven, that we are rich in grace, in Him, and if He says it, it will be true. Such is the commendation. It is silent in that there is an absence of complaint; it is expressed in these few monosyllables, “but thou art rich”. May we know something of it, and may we be more concerned to be rich in the eyes of Christ and in the grace of Christ than in anything else in the world.
Here, in the second case, is the counsel that is offered. Even though they are rich, they are rich in a given set of circumstances, and they are in need of counsel. So we read this in verse ten, “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 the 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”. The counsel here given again takes two forms. It takes the form, first of encouragement, and then of promise.
First, encouragement. “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. The devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days”. There is encouragement here. Christ is saying, Do not be afraid of those things that you still have to suffer. You notice that there is not a single word about the let-up in the trials. He says rather, your trials are still ahead of you. They still have to face demonically-inspired trial and imprisonment and persecution. “Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days”. Ten days of course, is not to be taken literally, but symbolically, and I take it as being symbolic of a definite period of time, and a period of time which is short. A period that will have termination. A period that is not going to go on eternally and endlessly, and that, surely, is a comfort. It will come to an end; it will last ten days. You look elsewhere, and you see references to seventy days, and to a thousand days, and so on. It will have a termination; that means that the persecution, though sharp, will be short.
I feel that this letter is a letter to Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe today.* Christians in those places know what suffering is, and Christ knows what suffering is. There seems to be little let-up behind the Iron Curtain in spite of all the noises that we hear to the contrary. Let-up for the dead Russian Orthodox Church, but none for the Evangelical Gospel Christians, but the end will come. There will be a termination. Jesus says, As you go through those ten days, do not fear, I have told you, that when it comes to pass, you may believe, and believe that I am in control. Fear none of those things. In the face of darkness and foreboding and punishment, there is encouragement.
But then there is the promise, as a part of the counsel here given. You have it in the latter part of verse ten, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life”. Now, Christ is not saying. Be faithful till the day of your death, He is saying, Be faithful to the point of death. Be faithful if it comes to the point of death. Faithfulness in maintaining their spiritual riches in spite of their tribulation and poverty. To any Christian, any child of God who is going through a time of trouble or distress or persecution, whatever it is, the Lord says to that Christian what He says to this Church at Smyrna, Do not doubt Me. Do not question Me. Only trust Me. Do lot let go. Hold fast your profession without wavering. Do not fall from your own steadfastness, and I will give you a crown of life.
The crown of life – that was a very suitable metaphor, a very suitable symbol to people who were quite familiar with ‘the crown of Smyrna’, that name, that phrase, was on the lips of people in Smyrna every day, the crown, the crown of Smyrna! Death had caused many Christians in Smyrna to lose sight of the crown of Smyrna with its elegant and beautiful buildings. To lose sight of the crown of Smyrna was to gain a far better sight, the sight of the crown of Life, immortal and eternal in the heavens. The sight of One who said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”. A crown of Life. It is promised. This is the heavenly reward for all who are faithful unto death.
K. W. H. Howard
The first part of this series, Ephesus – Then and Now, Gospel Tidings Vol. 13, No. 3, was prepared by Mr Howard shortly before he died- It was his intention to edit studies but that was not to be. Hence, this article is taken, almost verbatim, from the recording of the study, first given at Union Chapel, Bethersden. This explains the difference in style between the two articles.