Lesson Number 4
THE MESSAGE TO SMRYNA
""And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 'I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 'Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.'""""" (Revelation 2:8-11, NASB)
This book is a message to the churches! It is not a compendium of political and social information, or a prophesy of life on the earth with an absent church and a withdrawn Spirit. Such conditions would make the book irrelevant to the church. God is showing the churches what He is doing in the earth. He will also unveil the tactics of their adversary, the devil, alerting them to his subtlety. As intent as the old serpent is, however, he will not be able to proceed one millimeter beyond the boundary of Divine will! The nature of the heavenly reign will be made known, together with the effectiveness of the grace of God.
In view of God's eternal purpose, sin and spiritual retardation are utterly absurd and inexcusable. If the Law made sin "exceeding sinful" (Rom 7:13), the greatness of salvation in Christ Jesus has made it altogether intolerable. Therefore, sin is consistently judged and condemned by the Lord. He will not allow it to continue in His church without rebuke! Too, in view of the Divine objective, faith and patience are the only reasonable pursuits for the church. Therefore, these spiritual virtues are always commended and encouraged in the church.
Three Key Views
We will be exposed to three primary perspectives in this revelation. (1) Salvation is an aggressive enterprise, involving all of heaven. The Father has undertaken an extensive work in reconciling the world to Himself. Having raised and exalted the Lord Jesus Christ, He has positioned Him as Head over all, in order to bring "many sons to glory" (Heb 2:10). The Son has marshaled all the host of heaven in His assertive reign, which is devoted exclusively to bringing us to the Father (1 Pet 3:18).
(2) Satan has launched an energetic initiative to thwart this Divine purpose. Having been soundly defeated by the Lord Jesus, the devil has turned his attention to the redeemed. He is making war against them with great ferocity, entering zealously into every opportunity to do them evil.
(3) In the context of this consistent activity, the church must engage in strong efforts to "lay hold on eternal life" (1 Tim 6:10). To fail to do so puts the church out of harmony with heaven, making it vulnerable to the wicked one. Casualness will bring sure death toward, and judgment from, the living God. Slothfulness will therefore be invariably rebuked, and faithfulness will always be applauded
Jesus will be set forth as constant in the direction and protection of His people. He will subdue their enemies, provide a haven for their spiritual nourishment, and keep vigil over them. Satan will be viewed as pursuing every opportunity afforded him to do evil to the saints, and to bring them down to perdition.
This book will take us behind the scenes, showing us how much is transpiring in the unseen world. It will call us into the battle, convincing us of the danger of slumber, and the sure reward for faithfulness.
The messages to the seven churches are to be viewed in this context. They will be provided a heavenly assessment of their condition how they stand in relation to their Lord. They will not be measured by human standards, nor compared with other churches. They will be given a reason to be faithful. What Jesus says to them, he says to all churches.
THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA
"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write . . . " This is the only reference to Smyrna in the Bible (Rev 1:11; 2:8)! It was a seaport city, located approximately 35 miles North of Ephesus. This was an ancient city, having been established around 1100 B.C., and noted for being a trading-center and chief port for export trade.
Historically, it was a center of the imperial cult of Rome and emperor worship. A seal displaying the "goddess of Smyrna" helps to confirm the threatening environment occupied by this church. It was a city given over to idolatry, and devoted to the glory of the Roman empire. It also ranked as one of the most beautiful cities of Asia.
There is no reference to this city in the travels recorded in the book of Acts. No special epistle was addressed to it, as there was to Ephesus. Yet, it is duly noted by the Lord of glory. The eye of the Lord is ever upon the righteous!
Polycarp, who was martyred for Christ in 167 A.D. (86 years after his conversion), was known historically as the bishop of Smyrna. His dying words, as he stood within a devouring fire, are worthy of repetition. "O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, through Whom we have received a knowledge of Thee, God of the angels and of the whole creation, of the whole race of man, and of the saints who live before Thy presence; I thank Thee that Thou hast thought me worthy, this day and this hour, to share the cup of Thy Christ among the number of Thy witnesses!" This spiritual giant was a disciple of John the beloved, and some even suppose him to have been the messenger to who this touching epistle was written.
We will see from the message addressed to this congregation that it did not rank high among men. Indeed, there is no record that it even ranked high among other believers. It would not have been considered "successful" by contemporary religious standards. To appreciate Smryna, we must turn away from the worldly mind-set, and obtain the "mind of Christ!"
These believers were under oppression, and were going to be tested. Unnoticed by the rest of the world, they had been seen by the King. He now addresses a word to them, to prepare them for extensive involvement in the "eternal purpose" of God. Their experience will be more for heaven's observation than earthly analysis. Principalities and powers in heavenly places will be afforded a gratifying view of God's wisdom in the trial of this assembly.
A glimpse of the manner of the heavenly kingdom is seen in this short, but uplifting, message. It will surely bring comfort to every obscure disciple. The life of this church will have a greater impact on succeeding generations than it did upon the one it served. Such a perspective is strange to a church that is solidly ensconced in this world, but there are still congregations that fall into this category. Their works will "follow them" by impacting future generations, in addition to being recognized by their Lord before an assembled universe (Rev 14:13).
We must not allow ourselves to become insensitive to the nature of spiritual life. It is not an effort to become acclimated to "this present evil world," from which Jesus came to deliver us (Gal 1:4). The King of glory never fails to see our progress and our labors.
Efforts to keep the faith, however minuscule they may appear to men, are always recognized and encouraged by our Lord. He ever keeps vigil over His inheritance. We will find in the church at Smyrna, confirmation of the sanctifying power of faith.
WHO IS SPEAKING
"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, 'These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life." Remember, the Lord reveals Himself to each church in a manner appropriate for their condition. Three times in this book, Jesus refers to Himself as "the First and the Last" (1:18; 2:8; 22:13).
Lord of Beginnings!
He is the Lord of beginnings! the "First!" With Him began remission, reconciliation, and Divine acceptance! He is the "First" to rise from the dead, the Beginning of a New Creation, in which the saved participate (Acts 26:23; Rev 3:14)! The New Covenant owes its freshness and effectiveness to Him. Because of the Lord Jesus, there is such a thing as the new birth, wherein we can begin again, becoming as a "child" (Luke 18:17). All of the richness and joy of "first" things can be again experienced in Him.
Beginnings are no further from us than the Savior Himself. Whatever God wants initiated is realized in Christ. He is "the First!" He is why our faith began. The beginnings of repentance and remission were because of Him (Acts 5:31). Our love of God and fervent desire to dwell in His courts found their beginning in Christ Jesus. He is "the First!"
Lord of Culmination
But He is also "the Last." What He begins is brought to culmination in Him! He is why it is said of God, "He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil 1:6). The work will be brought to completion to the glory of God (Heb 12:2). The people of God must never lose sight of their Savior. The appointed objective is that Christ may present them "to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:27). That purpose will be realized in all who cleave to Him "with purpose of heart" (Acts 11:23).
The church in Smyrna must also see Jesus as the "Last" of the old and condemned order. He is truly "the last Adam" (1 Cor 15:45), bringing to an end the reign of death. He is the "end of the Law" (Rom 10:4), concluding the condemnation of that "ministry of death" (2 Cor 3:7). Whatever God wants terminated is ended in Christ. He is "the Last!" This is how the Lord Jesus wants His church to know Him!
Lord of Revival
"Who was dead, and came to life." Our salvation was accomplished by the Lamb of God absorbing the curse of God, and then returning! He endured the worst that men could inflict--and then returned! The "power of darkness" was permitted unfettered access to Him for a season (Luke 22:53). He submitted to the grip of the "last enemy," and he who "had the power of death" (Heb 2:14), and then returned!
This word -- "Who was dead, and came to life." -- speaks of the "power of His resurrection" (Phil 3:10). This is a triumphant note! It is an experience for which the Apostle Paul joyfully abandoned every competing pursuit (Phil 3:8-14). This power enables the child of God to recover from sin, the debilitating effects of persecution, and ultimately from death itself, which is "the last enemy" (1 Cor 15:26). In this power the saying is fulfilled, "for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again" (Prov 14:14). Again, it is written, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all" (Psa 34:19).
This is the word Smyrna needs to hear; a word that assures them they will recover from their trials. The Lord will sustain them, and their enemies will not realize ultimate triumph over them.
I KNOW YOUR WORKS
"I know your works . . . " This is the same word addressed to the church in Ephesus, who had "left" her "first love" (Rev 2:4). For Ephesus, this was a convicting word. For Smyrna, however, it was a comforting one. The condition of the heart, and the level of involvement with the Lord Jesus, determine the effect of His Word upon us. The very same word, spoken with differing effects!
In an effort to avoid an overestimation of "works," some speak disparagingly of them, as though they were of no value before Christ. We must take care not to be caught in this diversion. If it were true that "works" were completely inconsequential, Jesus would not rebuke men for being deficient in them, or give commendation for excellence in them. It is true that we are not justified "by works" (Rom 4:2; Tit 3:5). It is equally true that we are "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10). The Lord Jesus "gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Tit 2:14).
The Lord Jesus knows the works of His people from the vantage point of these texts. He compares the activity of His church with the works God has before prepared, and in which He has ordained they walk. "I know your works" means, I know whether or not you are walking in the light. I know if you are participating in the purpose for which you were called out of darkness! The people of God are assessed in respect to the purpose of God, not the goals of men. That purpose has been disclosed by and in the Person of Christ and the message of the Gospel. Essentially, it has to do with taking a people out of the world for the name of the Lord (Acts 15:14). The saints of God are being oriented for "the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwells righteousness" (2 Pet 3:13). Jesus measures the churches progress in that orientation.
In our time, a great deficiency of this perspective dominates the professed church. There is a crying need for those with ears to "hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches." He is still speaking to the churches, and they are admonished to hear what He is saying.
The tendency of men to compare themselves with their peers is altogether too prevalent. How appropriate is the Word of God on this matter. "We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise" (2 Cor 10:12, NIV).
Jesus knows our works! He sees them from heaven's point of view! He assesses them within the context of Divine purpose! How comforting this is to the faithful, and how convicting to those who are drifting from their spiritual moorings. We will now see how Smyrna will be assessed by their Lord.
The message is not unrelated to the churches of our time. We, Like all previous and succeeding generations, are to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches." That message is pertinent to our survival in the good fight of faith, and we do well to hear it with keen interest.
I KNOW YOUR TRIBULATION
There is an interesting perspective to be seen in these words. The church of Ephesus was reminded of its "first works," and urged to repent and again do them. Christ's words to Ephesus, by way of contrast, are arresting. " . . . you have tested those who say they are Apostles. . . and have found them liars . . . you have persevered . . . and have labored for My name's sake. . . you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen. . . " (2:2-5).
However, with Smyrna, there is not a single reference to the past only to the present and the future. Read again our Lord's short message to this church. "These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life."
This is the language of fellowship! These believers are in the crucible of trial, and thus the Lord speaks comfortably to them."I know your . . . tribulation . . . " The eye of the sympathizing Lord is upon them! They may be, for a season, "cast down," but they will not be "destroyed" (2 Cor 4:9). Jesus is near, and the knowledge of that emboldens the child of God to stand tall against the fiercest of opposing gales.
Faith inducts us into the realm of tribulation in this world. How well Jesus said it: "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). And just what is "tribulation?" We all do well to have a working knowledge of this term, for "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Tribulation is a "must" by the nature of spiritual experience and the design of Divine intent. It is the unavoidable result of living by faith.
"Tribulation" comes from a word (qli/yin), which means "pressure, or a pressing together." It is reflected in the pressing of grapes, in order that the sweet juice may be extracted. When applied to Kingdom experience, "tribulation" is the result of the sharp conflict that exists between the faith of God's people and the unbelief of the world. It occurs as the light of the redeemed exposes the darkness of an alienated world. Distress of spirit results, and often pain of body, as persecutions are endured. Make no mistake about it, there is undeniable conflict between "this present evil world" and "the world to come," into which faith ushers us.
Tribulation plays a key role in the preparation of believers for their reign with Christ. It is the appointed means of developing perseverance. As it is written, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance" (Rom 5:1-3). The natural man is incapable of reasoning in this manner. "Flesh" perceives difficulty and distress as insurmountable hindrances to persevering, or remaining faithful. It seeks the way without conflict, seeking for a road without obstacles.
The sanctifying impact of faith, however, enables the believer to see the goal more clearly because of the world's opposition. The rejection of this world accentuates our citizenship in the world to come.
When Jesus says, "I know your tribulation," it means infinitely more than a mere awareness of it. He beholds the suffering church with a mind to sustain and uphold it. He will not allow His people to be "tempted above" what they are "able to bear" (1 Cor 10:13). He will grant them power to stand, when others are falling. They will be given bread from heaven to sustain and nourish them in the battlefield. The church at Smyrna continued to stand in tribulation because of their Lord!
What a difference there is between the church at Smyrna and that at Ephesus. The church at Ephesus worked hard, but apparently did not suffer for righteousness sake. Yet, that church "left" their "first love." The church at Smyrna is not commended for a lot of works or arduous labor, yet is not upbraided for any deficiency at all. They had kept the faith in "tribulation." This church maintained their grip on eternal life when sorely pressed.
An Important Spiritual Principle
An important spiritual principle can be seen here. It is possible for a church or individual to be in such circumstances that productive activity is out of the question. This is of no consequence to the institutionally minded, but has great relevance to those intent upon keeping the faith. There is more to spiritual life than impacting the lives of others!
There are times when all of our spiritual energies must be devoted to STANDING! As it is written, "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Eph 6:13). Kingdom initiatives are sometimes held in abeyance while the ground we have gained is maintained. There are times of special trials, like that of Job, when keeping the faith is all we can do. However, that is not to be despised. The heavens behold the redeemed in the crucible of conflict, often attacked by the forces of darkness with great ferocity. Such is the "evil day" when all of our ransomed powers are required to "stand" Blessed is the person who recognizes such a time, and throws his spiritual energies into keeping the faith and standing. Christ will surely bring comfort to such souls.
When Jesus agonized in prayer in Gethsemane, His sword was sheathed for a short season as He grappled with temptation and trial. With care, He delivered His disciples to the Father, to be kept while He contended with the foe, preparing to have our iniquities laid upon Him. Hear His plaintive words. "Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are" (John 17:11).
The church at Smyrna was under assault, and the Savior knew their tribulation. He beheld to sustain and uphold them. His omnipotent hand will be upon them, and against their foes. Nothing shall befall them for which they are not made equal.
I KNOW YOUR POVERTY
Wealth in Poverty
"I know your . . . poverty (but you are rich) . . . " Ah, here is another exposure of the absurdity of the world's religion. It has become fashionable in some circles to speak of poverty in a derisive manner, calling it the curse of the Law, and saying the people of God have been delivered from it. But what will the propagators of such foolishness do with the church at Smyrna? Here is a church in which no fault was found. Not a single syllable of rebuke is uttered against it. The church at Smyrna is not urged to recover any lost ground, or return to a superior previous condition. Yet, Jesus declares He knows their poverty. She has been deprived of earthly conveniences, stripped of all good appearances. "But," says her Lord, "you are rich!"
I recall this poignant word. "Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" (James 2:5). Prosperity in this world is not a sure sign of the blessing of God! Like the Hebrew believers, they had no doubt experienced the plundering of their goods (Heb 10:34). This is of particular note because of the city in which these saints resided. Smyrna was noted for its wealth but the saints of God did not share in it. The conflict between the passing world and the eternal one was experienced in the church at Smyrna. The world heaped no praise upon this church! Its members were not held in high regard. In this fair city, highly regarded by men, the saints of the Most High God suffered tribulation and became poor!
I have often wondered what the contemporary church would have left to commend it, if stripped of all its earthly possessions. If it was found in "poverty," like the church in Smyrna, what would commend it to the Lord? With great sorrow of heart, I must admit that too many assemblies have nothing more than a building, large budget, and professional staff. They do not feel comfortable in the Lord's presence, and heavenly hosts have no joy when standing in their presence.
You Are Rich!
The exalted Lord now gives His personal assessment of this poor and oppressed church. "YOU ARE RICH!" Their real possessions were in abundance! The wealth they held was recognized in heaven! Like the Apostles, it could be said they were "as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things" (2 Cor 6:10). Their riches were not mere figments of the imagination. Nor, indeed, were they inferior to the "uncertain riches" of this world 1 Tim 6:17).
There are eternal treasures that enhance the worth of those possessing them! James spoke of being "rich in faith" (James 2:5). Others are admonished to be "rich in good works" (1 Tim 6:18). There are also the "the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering" (Rom 2:4), and the "riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" (Rom 11:33). Who can forget "the riches of His grace" (Eph 1:7), "the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints" (Eph 1:18), and the "riches of the full assurance of understanding" (Col 2:2). Even the "the reproach of Christ" is "greater riches than the treasures in Egypt" (Heb 11:26), as Moses well knew. Who can forget the glorious proclamation, "Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:3). There are heavenly riches that enhance our lives in this world, sustaining us when all else fails. Rich, indeed, is the congregation that, like Jesus, has "food to eat of which you do not know" (John 4:32).
In summary, the church at Smyrna was "rich toward God" (Luke 12:21), having obtained and maintained heavenly resources. While They could not barter for worldly goods, they could traffic in heavenly commodities. They had access to "the wisdom that comes from above" (James 3:17), "bread from heaven" (John 6:32), and "all spiritual blessings" (Eph 1:3).
Jesus considered Smyrna to be "rich!" This church had availed itself of the things provided in Christ Jesus. She had chosen to traffic in heavenly realities, and to procure riches inaccessible to moth and rust. O, that such an assessment could be made of us, and of our churches! In the last analysis, no other view of the church is of any value. If a church has no heavenly abundance, it is wretched and poor, regardless of its claim.
The church at Smyrna needed to hear this word from the Lord. She was in the tribulum the threshing instrument--experiencing hardship, difficulty, and rejection. This word would cause a resurgence of her strength! It was like good news from a far country, assuring the suffering ones they were not alone. She was rich in what really counted, and she needed to hear it! The Lord has a mind to comfort and encourage His people when they need it. It is on the part of wisdom for us to share His interest in their welfare. Never be fearful of telling God's people of their virtues. There are times when it is especially important for them to hear such things. We need not fear such activity, for it is the nature of our Lord Jesus Himself to do so. Encouragers are a blessing to all in tribulation.
I KNOW THE BLASPHEMY
Savages in Religion
" . . . and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." Now Jesus identifies some of the oppressors of His people. He charges them with "blasphemy," because they have dared to identify themselves with the God of heaven. They had put a holy name to an unholy thing, and the Lord has seen it! Here again, a great paradox is seen: savages in religion!
Many are the souls that have suffered attacks from those wearing the name of the Lord. It started when Cain killed Abel (Gen 4:25). It continued in the persecutions Moses endured from the very people he was leading (Ex 17:4). The holy prophets were all opposed by the people (Matt 5:12; Acts 7:52). The Lord Jesus Himself was rejected by the Jews, who killed Him (John 1:11; Acts 3:15). With remarkable consistency, the people of God have experienced opposition from those claiming to be of God. Not a single abuse has gone unnoticed by the Lord of glory.
A Synagogue of Satan The strength of the Lord's word must not escape us. Here was a religious body Jesus said was "a synagogue of Satan." The church at Philadelphia was also opposed by such a group (Rev 3:9) a group of people through whom the devil himself worked!
And what is "a synagogue of Satan"? It is a place where Satan works without restraint; a place where his diabolicial desires are carried out in a religious setting. Is it not a dreadful thought that there are bodies of people who gather to do the will of the devil? They do not think themselves to be engaged in such wickedness, yet they are!
Those who take it upon themselves to oppress the saints of God are doing the work of Satan. They are carrying out his intentions, and shall be judged for doing so. Christ Jesus gives them no credit for sincerity. He does not mention their orthodoxy, or any supposed good they have done. They have cursed the people of God, and thus will incur His curse. Make no mistake about this: it will not go well for any body of people Jesus identifies as "the synagogue of Satan!"
The identity people claim with God becomes blasphemy at the point they oppose the saints of God. All claims of association with God are negated when His people are hated and maligned.
Elsewhere, the Spirit speaks of true Jews, i.e., those recognized by the God of heaven. "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God" (Rom 2:28-29). It is what people ARE that compels them to do what they do! If they have not been transformed inwardly, they are not the people of God. If God does not praise them, and their hearts have not been circumcised, they are not recognized by the Lord as a people.
The Lord particularly identifies those who say they are "Jews." These were the people who had been given every spiritual advantage. Of them it is written, "who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen" (Rom 9:4-5). Yet, in spite of these remarkable benefits, they not only rejected Christ themselves, but aggressively opposed those receiving Him. To them, "Christ crucified" became a "stumbling block" (1 Cor 1:23). With an aggressiveness that boggles the mind, they had Paul beaten "five times" with "forty stripes save one" (2 Cor 11:24). Their encroachments on the early church are vividly described in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians. "For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost" (1 Thess 2:14-16).
Now, they prove obstacles to the believers at Smyrna, aggressive in their opposition to the Gospel. History tells us that when Polycarp was martyred, the Jews helped to gather wood to have him burned alive so fierce was their hatred of the name of Christ! But in their zeal, they were pawns in the hands of the devil! What a dreadful identity: The synagogue of Satan! That is the Savior's own assessment of those "Jews" who made life more difficult for the church at Smyna. Let us be zealous to encourage those in Christ Jesus, not adding to their sorrow. Our encouragements are a blessing.
DO NOT FEAR!
The Righteous in Persecution
"Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer." Here is another paradox: the righteous are persecuted! For some, this is too difficult to comprehend. They imagine that because Christ has "received us to the glory of God" (Rom 15:7), all will go well with us. Ignorant of the nature of and reason for salvation, they equate well-being in the world with Divine favor. How appropriate is the word of God through Isaiah the prophet. "The righteous perishes, And no man takes it to heart; Merciful men are taken away, While no one considers That the righteous is taken away from evil" (Isa 57:1). The "evil" from which the "righteous" are "taken away" is in this world.
We are being exposed to the manner of the Kingdom, and the nature of Christ's reign! If there remains in anyone the notion that Jesus rules in order to our temporal comfort and the possession of worldly gain, the message to Smyrna will be a hard lesson. Mind you, this is the King speaking to His people even to a most favored people who are rich in His eyes. Already they have suffered, even being reduced to poverty. But there is more to come!
Divine Wisdom Being Shown
Through the church, "the manifold wisdom of God" is being shown to "the principalities and powers in the heavenly places" (Eph 3:10). There are aspects of His character that have not yet been revealed as He desires. He has chosen to make these known in His work with His people "the church." He will set the church forth as superior to every circumstance created by wicked men, and the devil, with whom such have been joined. He will allow them to go through suffering, in order that the durability of what they have received may be seen by heavenly hosts. When they suffer, as they live by faith, they will lose nothing but dross and the heavenly treasure they hold in earthen vessels will be enhanced and made more precious.
In persecution, the people of God are made worthy of the Kingdom for which they suffer. This has a strange sound to those unfamiliar with Kingdom manners. Yet, it is plainly taught, and that for our upbuilding. "So that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer" (2 Thess 1:4-5). Suffering necessarily precedes reigning with Christ. As it is written, " If we suffer, we shall also reign with him" (2 Tim 2:12). And again, "and if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together" (Rom 8:17).
The Considerate Jesus
The rejection of this world confirms our acceptance in heaven, where our names are "written" (Luke 10:20; Heb 12:23). The Lord does not leave His people to grope in the darkness on this matter. He tells them what is coming, and admonishes them not to fear. When He dwelt among us, Jesus spoke of a time when great calamity would strike the sons of men. Of that time He said, "men's hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken" (Luke 21:26). But it is not so with His people! A deluge of trial is about to fall upon the saints at Smyrna! But with authority and grace He cries out, "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer." They have already endured poverty and blasphemy, but worse things are to come perhaps prison and even death! Their hearts must be "established with grace" at this time, and not shaken with or dominated by fear (Heb 13:9). God has "not given us the spirit of fear," and times of trial confirm this to be the case (2 Tim 1:7).
I think of the word Jesus gave to His disciples concerning the destruction of Jerusalem a time of fierce opposition. "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls. But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near" (Luke 21:16-20). Even that dreadful hour was not to be executed without the controlling hand of Christ Jesus. His presence guaranteed that "not a hair of their head" could be lost!
So it would be with the church at Smyrna. What was to occur would be done within the circumference of Christ's will and reign. It would serve His purpose, and would have no power to separate them from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus. They were not to fear because their trial would not impact upon their standing with God! It would not diminish their inheritance or put them beyond His sustaining grace.
When we hear the words "fear not," we must know that saints will be tempted to fear in times of trial. It is then that we must take hold of the words of the "sweet Psalmist of Israel." "Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You" (Psa 56:3). Fear can be thrown off by faith, and that is what the Lord is exhorting the church at Smyrna to do. This is not psychological hype. Fearlessness in the face of great difficulty is possible because of the great Shepherd of the sheep. He that keeps us will not slumber (Psa 121:4). It will require effort to "not fear any of those things" Smyrna was about to suffer. But the word of the King comes with power to do what He urges.
TESTING IS COMING
Commitment in Trial
"Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison . . . " What a candid word! How it reminds me of Christ's word to Peter. "Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:31-32). Perhaps, because of the strong faith of the brethren at Smyrna, Satan had asked for some of them also. He is of a mind to do this, even as he did with Job (Job 1:9-11; 2:4- 5).
The Lord speaks to His people with ultimate reality in mind. He does not say the governor will cast some of them into prison, or that the Jews will have some of them incarcerated. No! It is "the devil" who is about to do this! He is their adversary, and they must arm themselves to resist him, "steadfast in the faith" (1 Pet 5:8-9).
How Free Is Satan?
For some, this introduces a problem, for it is written, "We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not" (1 John 5:18). Because of a misapprehension of the nature of spiritual life, some have assumed they can simply dismiss the devil, and he will cease to harras them. What will they do about the saints at Smyrna? Jesus does not say Satan MAY cast some of them in prison, but that he will do so!
By "toucheth him not," Scripture means Satan does not have free access to those in Christ Jesus. They are not accessible to him "at his will," as is the case with those in unbelief and disobedience (2 Tim 2:26). The devil cannot accomplish his intent with believers. He cannot take their faith from them or drag them into hell, so to speak. He can tempt, buffet, and sift the people of God, but only when given leave to do so by God. He cannot touch their real life, or alienate them from God. When the last word is said, those living by faith "overcome the wicked one" (1 John 5:18).
Every believer will have to contend with the devil, but it will always be within the framework of the Divine will. Although the old serpent desires that we perish, God "is not willing that any should perish" (1 Pet 3:9), and will not permit Satan to bring His people down.
Notice how the reign of Christ is made known. All of them would not be thrown into prison -- although that is how the devil would love to have it. Only "some of you" will be accessible to the old serpent. He does not tell them which ones, for they must all arm themselves with a sober mind and "Whole armor of God." You may rest assured, however, it will only be those who can survive the assault.
The church at Smyrna may rest assured none will be tried above their ability. The Lord will not permit this to happen. As it is written, "God is true, who will not let any test come on you which you are not able to undergo; but he will make with the test a way out of it, so that you may be able to go through it" (1 Cor 10:13, BBE). Every trial is controlled and monitored by the Lord of glory! He does not tell the church that some of them will be thrown into prison by Satan because there is nothing He can do about it. He is going to be with them in the trial, like the angel of the Lord was with the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace. They will not go into prison alone!
The saints of God must realize there are higher purposes being served than their own selfish interests. Angelic hosts are beholding the faith of the elect with great wonder. They see the divers wisdom of God in the sustaining of believers under great duress. They have a "treasure" in those frail earthen vessels that prison cannot take from them. They will come forth as pure gold Job 23:10).
TESTING WILL BE MEASURED
" . . . and you will have tribulation ten days." Their affliction will be temporary, and in strict accordance with the will of the Lord. It will be for a measured time, and will be brief. A Sovereign Lord will see to that. It is still true, "My times are in Your hand." Therefore, the saints may pray, "Deliver me from the hand of my enemies, And from those who persecute me" (Psa 31:15).
The Lord has placed boundaries around the sea. As it is written, "The waters stood above the mountains. At Your rebuke they fled; At the voice of Your thunder they hastened away. They went up over the mountains; They went down into the valleys, To the place which You founded for them. You have set a boundary that they may not pass over, That they may not return to cover the earth" (Psa 104:6-9). If this is the case with nature, how much control must exist in the "great salvation" which Christ Jesus is managing! There are boundaries around your sufferings, just as surely as there are around the seas!
Not simply would only "some" of them be cast into prison, they would have tribulation for only "ten days." That is another way of saying brief. Often we read of this perspective of suffering in Scripture. There will be hardship, and even tears, but joy will follow. "Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning" (Psa 30:5). Ultimately, all trials will come to a grinding halt at the return of our Lord. "For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry" (Heb 10:37).
From the perspective of faith, we are grieved by trial only for "a little while." "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials" (1 Pet 1:6). Even then, the trial serves a higher and eternal purpose. Such tests are in order "that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 1:7).
As we proceed through the book of Revelation, we will find frequent references to periods stated in terms of "days." God's witnesses are said to prophesy "one thousand two hundred and sixty days" (11:3). When the witnesses of God are rejected and slain by the world, "nations will see their dead bodies three-and-a-half days," after which the spirit of life will again enter into them (11:9,11). Under the figure of a woman, the church is said to be fed by God in a prepared place for "one thousand two hundred and sixty days" (12:6). In each of these, the precise length of time is not the point. The Spirit is developing a perspective for us in His use of "days." In the case before us, "ten days" means a brief period. It is brief in comparison with the blessedness of the reward. It is precise in the sense of being strictly controlled by the Lord.
Whether the looming trial consummated in the death of those being tested, or was abruptly ended so they could return to normal life, is of no consequence. The point is that Satan was not going to realize his objectives. His purpose would end, but God's would not!
Now, you must learn to take the truth of God for your own, applying it to your case. This is why we are to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches because it has relevance to our present condition. If you are being tested, it is only for a short while, and you will not be forsaken during its heat. Be of good cheer, then, and hold on your way. The glories of the world to come will wash away the recollection of these fleeting hardships. Here is the word of the Lord to us. "Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor 4:16-18). As the old camp-meeting song says, "We'll soon be done with troubles and trials!" God be praised the Lord Jesus is with us in the midst of them all!
THE PENETRATING PROMISE
Triumph in Death
"Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." Beneath the city of Rome, there is a massive collection of underground routes. They are tunneled in rocky strata, and are even today open to the public. But these are an epitaph to the cruelty of this world, for they are actually cemeteries, known as the Catacombs. Here lie the remains of countless numbers of martyrs, slain for the word of their testimony. Some bodies were taken there from torture racks, and others from arenas where believers offered their last sacrifice in a shroud of flames. In these dark areas, we are told, Christian art was birthed. The saints of God took hold of hope as their comrades remained faithful until the death. Numerous accounts have been recorded of brave souls that refused to deny their Lord, keeping the faith until required to die because of it. Some of those saints were from Smyrna, not the least of which was Polycarp. In those days, believers did not always die of old age, or some crippling disease.
Jesus has apprized His people at Smyrna that some of them will be thrown into prison. They will be put to the most severe test, and will be required to stand under the most oppressive circumstances. The Lord gives the heavenly requirement, then speaks of the sure reward. This word has been passed down through the generations, and every believer has at some time heard it. "Be faithful until death!" That is the word! Christ will now allow vacillation. No wavering under stress. Faithful until death, whether that death be by natural causes, or under the merciless hand of persecutors.
And what does "faithful" mean?It mans "believing, true, trustworthy, and sure." It means the grip on eternal life will not be forfeited for anything or anyone. The eyes will not be turned from the heavens, nor the heart from the Savior. No lure, however cunning, will cause the one who is faithful until death, to remove his hand from the plow. This world, at its best and at its worst, is perceived as temporary, and therefore unworthy of making shipwreck of the faith.
Now death is a sure appointment, for as it is written, "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment" (Heb 9:27). When that appointment is, we do not know, but all shall keep it. Our Lord does not ask us to be faithful until the end of the day, or until the trial is over. Our vision must reach further than the moment. Faithfulness is a requisite as long as we are "in the body" (Heb 13:3). When times are good, let us be faithful, and when times are oppressive. When we soar on eagle's wing, or when we walk in sore drudgery, faithfulness is the word! Even if our faith leads to our death, may it be kept fervently!
Living for Jesus requires that kind of determination! It is so vital, that even when some of the number are about to be cast into prison by Satan, they are reminded "Be faithful until death!" This is another way of saying, "they loved not their lives unto the death" (Rev 12:11). It is "enduring to the end" (Matt 10:22), and in your patience possessing your souls (Luke 21:19). This is hating your life "in the world" in order that you might "keep it unto life eternal" (John 12:25).
We do not hear much of this kind of devotion today at least not in our country. Some have failed to be faithful over far less consequences than death!
The Crown of Life
To those who are "faithful until death," the glorified Christ promises "a crown of life." James also spoke of this crown, promising it to the individual that endured temptation. "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (James 1:12). What is the "crown of life," and why does it provide a strong incentive to be faithful until death?
A "crown of life" involves the triumph of life over death! Those receiving such a crown shall personally experience death being "swallowed up of life," thereby losing all of its presence and power (2 Cor 5:4). Never again will they be subject to trial. That is an experience reserved for those who occupy a domain of jeopardy! While they were in the world, the "Seed" of God remained in them, bringing connection with the unseen realm and vital union with the Living One Himself (1 John 3:9). The "crown of life" is given when our total persons have been swept into vitality with the Living God when spirit, soul, and body are in joyous and productive harmony with the Savior. No part of us will be recalcitrant or withdrawing. Nothing will have to be subdued within us. Glad day, when the "crown of life" is granted!
A "crown of life" also speaks of a reign. Those who are "faithful until death" will be required to "suffer with Christ." They will taste the bitterness of apparent defeat, as they may appear to have lost. As Jesus was "crucified through weakness" (2 Cor 13:4), so many who follow Him go through valleys of unspeakable depth and frailty. But that will not be the case when they receive "the crown of life." That will be a kingly crown, and they, according to the promise, "will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ" (Rom 5:17). Of that grand and glorious reign it is written, "There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever" (Rev 22:5). Thank God for that kingly "crown of life!"
One other aspect of "the crown of life" that is refreshing. This is another view of our glorification, when the good work of God will be brought to culmination before an assembled universe. The Divine appointment is, "and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Rom 8:30). This is when the likeness of Christ shall characterize every aspect of our persons, praise the Lord! As it is written, "we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2). That will be the crowning glory of Christ's work, the rich reward of our faith, and the commencement of uninterrupted communion with our Lord.
All of this will be given to those who are "faithful until death" and the half has not yet been told! Such a prize is worthy of your best effort under every circumstance of life!
HEAR WHAT THE SPIRIT SAYS!
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches . . . " Again, the nature of Scripture is perceived. Here is a word to the messenger of the church at Smyrna, to be given to that congregation. In a broader sense, it is declared to "the churches" collectively. In a more specific sense, the individual who has the capacity to hear is to take the message personally. The Word of God deals with eternal issues, not mere provincial challenges. If "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matt 4:4), then hearing should be one of our chief strengths. We live by "every word" that comes from God, because it is relevant. It addresses our situation, and contains nourishment for our soul.
An "ear to hear" is a circumcised ear (Acts 7:51), sensitive to the voice of the Lord. It involves a heart that is alert to the will of God, and delights to know His will. The individual with such an ear is comfortable in the presence of the Lord, and thrives in His court.
To "hear what the Spirit says" involves more than merely exposing ourselves to His word. By an act of our will, we expose our hearts to the Word. We take the words into our thought processes, to contemplate and ponder. The Word is thus hidden in the heart, that we might not sin against our Lord (Psa 119:11).
Those who hear what the Spirit says to the churches pledge to guard themselves against the intrusion of Satan's devices. They determine to lay hold of the promises made to the overcomer.
The Final Promise
" . . . He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death." Again, a glorious promise is given to build the confidence of the hearers. The promise assumes a vital interest in the world to come. It will have no meaning to the person who is not engaged in the good fight of faith. However, for those who have taken up their cross daily, and are running the race with patience that is set before them, it is a promise to obtain. It is spoken to suffering saints, some of which will lay down their lives because of their testimony. The smoke of spiritual battle is in the air, and the clash of contrary forces is felt.
This is the first time in all of the Bible that the phrase "second death" is mentioned. It is not defined until much later, but the sense of its meaning is apparent to the sanctified soul. There are two senses in which both life and death may be experienced. In both cases, one is optional, and one is not. Everyone is involved in the first, not everyone in the second. There is life in the body, and there is eternal life. There is also death in the body, and a second death. One has well said, If we are born twice, we will only die once. But if we are only born once, we will die twice.
The "second death" is a different kind of death a second type of death. The first death, common to all (Heb 9:27), is a separation of the spirit from the body. The "second death" is a separation of the individual from God Almighty. The "second death" is described in soul-jarring words. "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death" (Rev 20:14). "But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Rev 21:8). While men have taken upon themselves to philosophize about the second death, the sensitive soul determines to avoid it. Whatever you may think about "the lake of fire," and "the lake which burns with fire and brimstone," you do well to make every effort to avoid being cast here!
This is the ultimate punishment, the final curse. It is being "punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess 1:9). Jesus spoke of it as a place where "their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched," to be avoided at all cost (Mark 9:44-48). From this death there shall be no recovery!
Speaking of the second death, Jesus once said, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt 10:28). How appropriate for those in Smyrna, who were being harshly opposed by those who could kill the body! Jesus told them not to fear any of the things they were going to experience. They were to keep their faith, even though their enemies appeared to triumph over them.
Those who suppose faith insulates us from hardship in this world are in serious error. The landscape of this world is cluttered with the graves of faithful saints whose blood was shed because of who they were. Their enemies seemed superior, and took delight in ridding themselves of the saints of God. But there is a day of reckoning on the horizon. How men stand in that day is the most critical consideration of all!
The "second death" will bring no dread to the one who keeps the faith, for faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). On Mount Sinai, Moses exceedingly feared and trembled, though a holy man (Heb 12:21). But he will not do so when the lake of fire is opened to receive the condemned! Nor, indeed, will any soul that has continued to believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God (1 John 5:5).
If you have ever feared being condemned, take hold of this promise! If you overcome and you can, by the grace of God you will have nothing to fear from the second death. It will have "no power" over you (Rev 20:6). If you continue to cleave to the Lord with purpose of heart, He will stand by you in the day of judgment! Then, the second death will not hurt you!
I realize it is not fashionable today to talk of or contemplate the day of judgment and its consequences. It is essential, however, that those who wear the name of Christ give attention to such considerations. It will prove to be a deterrent to ungodliness, and a strong incentive to godliness.
In every age, the church of Jesus Christ has suffered the reprisals of an unbelieving world. While this has taken different forms, it has always revealed a sharp and undeniable clash between those who believe God and those who do not. It has always confirmed that those who live by faith are not of the world, and do not fit into its patterns. By the same token, it has demonstrated the alienation of the world from God.
The church at Smyrna stands as a constant source of consolation to everyone who has suffered for righteousness sake. The message given to it has doubtless calmed many a soul who has stood condemned before the devil's crowd, and bowed the neck before the enemy's sword. The world has never been worthy of such noble saints, yet has always had to contend with them.
When the struggle becomes intense, and holding our ground is about all we can do, the Lord speaks comfortably to us. He does not lay upon us burdens we cannot bear, but exhorts us to keep the faith. We will not be asked to endure anything beyond our capacity, and in it all, the Lord Jesus will be with us. Our responsibility is to give fear no place in our hearts. We are also to look at our afflictions as short and brief only for a moment. Soon, we shall be with the Lord, with all adversity behind us. Until then, our afflictions will be the occasion for Divine consolation, when hope shines more brightly!