To the Church of Smyrna: Revelation 2:8-11
I recently read an article on the website persecution.org about a bombing that took place in Pakistan. Last week on Easter, a suicide bomber ran into a park in Lahore where he detonated a bomb that killed 69 people and wounded 300 more. “In March 2015, suicide bombers also attached to Pakistani Taliban attacked two churches in Lahore, killing over 20 and wounding another 70.” In the article it says that those responsible have said they are specifically targeting Christians. My heart is saddened and broken for our brothers and sisters who are suffering in such intense ways. However, the good news is, the Bible is not silent about persecution.
Jesus said in John 15:18–21,
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
In Matthew 5:10–12 we read,
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
So how is it that we can rejoice in persecution? How is that we can stand strong in our faith when facing death because of our faith? And for that we turn to the letter to the church of Smyrna.
First, the description of Jesus is exactly what the church needs to remember. “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.” Here we are reminded that Jesus conquered death. He died but then He came to life. Death could not hold Him, death could not conquer Him. In fact, Jesus defeated death by dying and then raising again. He now holds the keys of death and hades (Rev. 1:18). Jesus calls this persecuted church to remember that their Savior, their King, their Lord has defeated death. Because of the resurrection, death has lost it’s sting (1 Cor. 15:55) and we can also echo Paul’s words, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
Next, notice how Jesus describes the church, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)…” Even though this church, by all physical appearances looks defeated, Jesus says, they are rich. May we be reminded that suffering does not require us to think that we are doing the wrong thing. The church of Smyrna is suffering greatly not because of idolatry and sinfulness but because they are standing strong in their faith. Perhaps we are to be reminded of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. In Babylon, they stood strong in their faith unwilling to compromise and bow down before an idol. The result: they were thrown into a fiery furnace. But not even the fire could destroy they, for Jesus had come down with them in the fire and protected them.
At the end of verses 9 and 10 we see where much of the persecution is coming from. Jews are slandering the Christians before the Romans and thus they are being persecuted and killed. One commentator wrote,
“The Jews who sometimes had no qualms in semi-revering other deities (especially the Roman Emperor) along with their OT God, often were too willing to make the Roman authorities aware that the Christians were not a Jewish sect….The mention of Roman persecution in v.10 directly following that of Jewish slander conforms to historical reports of Jews allying with and encouraging Romans and Gentiles to oppress Christians (e.g., Acts 13:45, 50; 14:2-7, 19; 17:5-9; 1 Thess. 2:14-16)” (Beale, 61).
In verse 10 we read that through the work of Satan, some of the Christians will be arrested and experience tribulation for ten days. “Ten days” most likely is not a specific time but rather refers to a short period of time. It does not appear that after these ten days the Christians will be released but that they will be killed. After all, Jesus says, “be faithful unto death”. Imagine being apart of this church. Imagine hearing this being read. Imagine knowing you will experience intense persecution that will most likely end in your death.
So what do you do?
Jesus says, “do not fear what you are about to suffer” but “be faithful unto death.” How Jesus? How am I not to fear death? What comfort is there?
At the end of verse 10 and 11 we read two beautiful promises.
The First Promise: “I will give you the crown of life.” A crown was given to who were victorious in the athletic events. So here Jesus says, though you died, you are not defeated. Though it appears the world won, you are victorious. Jesus is reminding the church that just as He defeated death and now sits on a throne with a crown so we who are faithful will also sit victoriously with him.
And the Second Promise is that “the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” What is the second death? It is eternal suffering in hell. In Revelation 20:14–15 we read,
14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
So here Jesus reminds the church, if they remain faithful they will not only receive a crown but they will forever dwell in the perfect holy presence of their King. They will forever enjoy living in God’s perfect Kingdom. They will never taste the wrath of God that will be poured out on all who have rejected Him. Now that is good news!
So here we see that suffering is not something that only comes upon those who are sinful, but it also comes upon the faithful. And we who have faith in Jesus do not need to fear suffering or death for it has no power over us. For even if we die, we will live forever with Jesus. Death has lost it’s sting.
This passage is meant to fortify the church. It strengthens our faith and confidence in our Risen King. This passage echoes the famous Romans 8:33–39.
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Praise God for our Risen King, the First and the Last!