Jesus’ second letter to the churches in Revelation was to Smyrna, a city in Turkey about 35 miles north of Ephesus on the shore of the Aegean Sea.
In the first century, A large number of Jews populated the city of about 200,000.
To a Suffering Church
All seven of the churches in Revelation suffered to one degree or another. Jesus’ message to the church in Smyrna put their suffering in perspective.
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the First and the Last, who was dead and came to life:
“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich” (Revelation 2.8-9).
Jesus understands suffering more than anyone. Isaiah called him “a man of sorrows.”
“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53.3).
Jesus also knows the redemptive power of righteous suffering and affliction.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53.5)
The suffering of God’s servants reveals God’s character. Polycarp is one of the most famous of the Christian leaders from Smyrna.
In the second century, he was arrested during a time of persecution under the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and was brought before the authorities to renounce his faith.
When asked to curse Christ, Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Few people remember the name of the emperor who had him executed, but Polycarp is famous both in heaven and on earth.
The church may be poor in the eyes of the world, but in heaven’s eyes, they are rich.
Words from the resurrected Jesus encouraged the church in Smyrna and gave saints like Polycarp the courage to face their accusers with love and faith.
Let’s explore the answers to two questions about the church in Smyrna.
Why were the early Christians poor?
The modern expression “go along to get along” was the rule of the day in the ancient world.
It may seem strange to modern ears, but the Roman Empire had more “gods” than could be counted. One “god” that required worship was the Roman emperor.
It was mandatory to participate in the festivals honoring the gods. Failure to attend could result in being held responsible for any negative events that occurred in the city, as it was believed that such absence was a sign of disrespect to the gods.
While Jews were exempted from mandatory participation, Christians were not granted the same privilege. Those who did not take part in the festivals were denied access to trade guilds, resulting in economic hardship.
This brings us to the second question: What caused the Jews in Smyrna to oppose the Christians?
The Christians didn’t have the same exemption as the Jews, but they refused to worship the idols. The larger community connected them to the Jews, which made life difficult for the Jews too.
Because of this, the Jews spoke ill of the Christians in Smyrna. This is the background to Jesus’ words to the church.
“I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2.9).
The Hebrew meaning of Satan is “accuser” and the Greek translation is “slander.”
The Jews were afraid of losing their rights in the Roman Empire because of the behavior of the Christians. They played into the hand of Satan (the accuser) by slandering the Christians of Smyrna.
This passage has been wrongly used by anti-Semites. To properly understand it, we need to read it in the context of the historical situation.
We also do well to remember that any time we slander someone, we enter the realm of Satan (the accuser).
“Whistling in the dark” is a way to keep our spirits up while walking through dark or scary places. “Fear not!” on the lips of Jesus is infinitely more than whistling in the dark.
It’s natural to be terrified at the thought of being imprisoned, tortured, or killed. But how can Jesus expect us to not feel afraid in such situations?
This is what he said to the church.
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction.
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death” (Revelation 2.10-11).
Prison was a holding cell where the accused awaited punishment. In the case of Polycarp, he was held until the time when he was commanded to denounce Jesus.
Polycarp accepted death by burning at the stake, rather than denying his Lord and Savior. He knew that death meant a crown of life and no harm by the second death.
Most of us will never face the kind of persecution the early church faced. Nevertheless, let’s strive to join Polycarp and say,
“For these many years I have served him, and he has never done me wrong. How can I do anything but honor my King who saved me?”
Rudy Ross and I are discussing Jesus’ message to the seven churches of Revelation this week. Our talk can be found on the Bob Spradling YouTube channel.