The (Persecuted) Suffering Church
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.
The messages to the churches have a threefold meaning:
Firstly, each letter has a primary association, having a local and direct bearing upon the church to which it was written. Each letter was a measuring rod by which each church could know its standing in the sight of the risen Lord.
Secondly, each letter has a personal application. Even though Christ addresses each church as a whole, the message to overcome is addressed to the individual.
Thirdly, each church individually, and the seven churches combined, set forth prophetic anticipation. We see in them seven eras of the life of the church on earth. Seven in the Bible is the number of perfection, completion, fullness. In these letters we have a prophetic picture of the church’s complete history on earth.
Each of the seven letters follows the same general format:
1) Name (of the church that particular letter is addressed to).
2) Its Description of Christ.
3) Commendation: What that church is praised for.
4) Warning: What that church is rebuked for.
6) To The Overcomers.
7) Prophetic Application (As revealed in church history, found throughout the letter.)
Name: Smyrna – meaning “myrrh” from root meaning “bitter.” Myrrh is a tree resin with a bitter taste that was crushed and used in perfume, in incense, and as a preservative in burial. It is a symbol of death. It is interesting to note that it was one of the three gifts brought to Jesus by the Wise Men. (See Matthew 2:11) All three gifts pictured something about the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and His mission. The gold symbolized His deity and His kingship; the frankincense symbolized His priesthood and His offering of Himself for our sins, which was a sweetsmelling savour to our Heavenly Father (Ephesians 5:2); and the myrrh symbolized His suffering and death on the cross.
Description: The first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.
The first and the last. The Lord Jesus Christ was the one who had the preeminent place in these believers’ lives. Colossians 1:15 and 18 say, Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: And He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the preeminence. Preeminence means “first in rank or influence.” The church in Smyrna was able to overcome because Jesus Christ had the first place in each of their lives. Does He have first place in yours? Does Jesus have first place in every area of your life, or just the parts that you’ve decided to give Him, the leftovers so to speak? The word firstborn is the Greek word prototokos. Protos means “foremost (in time, place, order, or importance).” These verses in Colossians teach us that Jesus is the most important person in all creation, greater than every creature He ever created. He is the most important person that ever rose from the dead. Is Jesus Christ the foremost person in your life? Does He have the priority when it comes to your schedule? Does He have first place in your day to day life? Does He come first before your family and friends, before your dreams and goals? Is Jesus the most important person in your life? If you are saved, He should be!
Matthew 6:33 says, But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Do you give the Lord the first part of your day in prayer and Bible reading? Do you give Him the first day of your week by attending a solid, Bible-believing church? Do you give Him your firstfruits? This is an Old Testament word that referred to the tithe (10% of your gross income), which were the first fruits gathered when the harvest began to come in. (See Proverbs 3:9-10) He wants all these, but He especially wants the priority, the first place in your life. He wants to be your first love. (See Revelation 2:4) Is He?
“Let me shoot a quiver full of interrogatory arrows into your heart. Has Jesus the supreme place in your desires? Do you esteem all things but loss in comparison with the excellency of Jesus Christ, your Lord? Is He to you as a city of refuge to the manslayer? Is He to you as a spring of water in a dry place? Is He to you as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land? Is He to you, having had experience with Him, a refuge and fortress, a very present help in time of trouble? Is everything in Jesus desirable in your eyes? Do you desire to obey His commandments? Do you desire to have His spirit? Are His holiness and government, His cross and sufferings desirable to you? Are you longing at all times for Him? Have your eyes been opened to see His “want and worth?” Is His righteousness the righteousness you desire? Do you want to do His will – no matter what it may be? Are you willing for Him to dictate wholly your plans, actions, and speech? Is He really your Lord?” (James Crumpton, The Seven Sayings On The Cross)
Jesus was also the author and finisher of their faith. They endured the trials they were facing by keeping their focus on Christ and what He endured to save them. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. The word author is from a Greek word (Strong’s #747) meaning “chief leader; also rendered captain, prince.” In other words, He was the leader of their salvation, the pioneer who blazed the trail they were to follow. (See also Hebrews 5:8-9, though the word here for author is #154, meaning “causer, ie. He that causes; the agent by which an effect is produced,” in this case our salvation.) The word finisher (Strong’s #5051) means “completer, consummater.” Jesus not only was the focus of their salvation, He was the only person who could bring their faith to completion. He will do that for every one who believes in Him. Hebrews 7:25 Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them. Philippians 1:6 Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.
Which was dead, and is alive. Here Jesus is identifying with the church in Smyrna, by stating that He has already gone through what they are about to face, in this case, death. (See Hebrews 2:9) The fact that He has risen again is proof that those who believe in Him need not fear death, because on some future day they too will also be resurrected. (See John 11:25) John 14:19 says, Yet a little while, and the world seeth Me no more; but ye see Me: because I live, ye shall live also. 1 Corinthians 15:20 states, But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. While there were other believers that God had raised throughout the Old Testament and during Jesus’ personal ministry, Jesus was the first person to ever be raised immortal, never more to die. This He did by His own power! Death could not hold Him in the grave because He was God Almighty manifested in the flesh! (See Acts 2:23-24) Just as the firstfruits of the crop indicated that there was a full harvest yet to come, even so Jesus was the firstfruits from the dead, indicating that all who truly believed on Him for salvation would one day rise from the dead as well! For the believer, death is referred to as a sleep, a brief transition that carries us into the presence of the Lord. (See Philippians 1:21-23 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-8)
Romans 5:10 states, For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. This is referring to Jesus’ resurrected life in Heaven. Yes, He died on the cross for our sins, was buried in the tomb for three days, but He arose triumphantly from the grave and is alive forevermore! Praise the Lord! Jesus is now glorified in Heaven with the glory He had before His incarnation. One day, when He returns in His glory, all true believers will be made like Him. We will then have immortal, glorified bodies for all eternity. (See Romans 8:29-30; 1 John 3:2; and Philippians 3:20-21)
He is our faithful High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses and afflictions because He has gone through anything we could or will ever have to face in this life.
Hebrews 2:14-18 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily He took not on Him the nature of angels; but He took on Him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted.
Hebrews 4:14-16 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
The words succour and help from the above passages are from two Greek words (Strong’s #s 996 and 997) meaning literally “to run to the cry.” Whatever trials or afflictions you are going through in life, call out to Jesus in faith for help, and the Bible teaches He will run to your cry. That’s comforting! I don’t have to face any trial alone. Jesus can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. This phrase is from the word sumpatheo, where we get the word sympathy from. He will have compassion on us, so let us run to Him in all our afflictions.
Commendation: I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich). Suffering purifies the church. Even in the midst of their trials, persecutions, and poverty these Christians in Smyrna faithfully served the Lord. It is so sad today that many of us in our ease and prosperity will not do so! As the prophet Amos said, Woe to them that are at ease in Zion! (See Amos 6:1) Are we at ease in our churches today, comfortably warming our pews in God’s House, but refusing to work in the Lord’s field? It is interesting to note that, out of these seven churches in Revelation 2-3, except for the churches in Sardis and Laodicea, all the other churches were commended for their works. Jesus knows what service we have done in His name, and will remember it. (See Hebrews 6:10-11)
I know thy …tribulation. Jesus here commends the godly believers at Smyrna for patiently enduring trials and afflictions for His name’s sake. 2 Timothy 3:12 Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. Being faithful does bring some persecution from the lost world and from carnal believers, but it also brings rewards and the blessings of the Lord upon our lives. Jesus knows all about our troubles, and He is right there with us as we go through them! All the trials in believers’ lives are there to purify them, and to conform them to the image of Christ. (See Romans 8:28-29) God is working out all things to that end, and He will perfect the work that He has started in us; therefore we can fully trust Him and commit ourselves into His hands. Jesus knows what suffering we have endured in His name, and will reward it. (See 1 Peter 4:12-19 and Matthew 5:10-12)
Revelation 1:9 I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
John 16:33 These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.
Acts 14:22 Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.
Romans 8:35, 37-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 12:12 Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; (See also Romans 5:3-5)
I know thy …poverty, (but thou art rich). Jesus, the Son of God, left the splendour of Heaven’s glory, humbled Himself and became a man so He could die for our sins. (See Philippians 2:6-8) He took on our weaknesses, and was in all points tempted as we are, yet He never sinned. (Hebrews 4:15) 2 Corinthians 8:9 For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich. Though these believers in Smyrna were physically poor, they were spiritually rich in God’s sight. They were rich through placing their faith in the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary; rich through laying up treasures in Heaven; and rich through their good works to others. (See Revelation 3:18; Matthew 6:20-21; 2 Corinthians 6:10; 8:2; Philippians 4:19; 1 Timothy 6:18) Jesus knows what we’ve relinquished and sacrificed in His name, and He will repay it. (See Mark 10:28-30)
“But thou art rich (v. 9), poor in temporals, but rich in spirituals – poor in spirit, and yet rich in grace. Their spiritual riches are set off by their outward poverty. Many who are rich in temporals are poor in spirituals. Thus it was with the church of Laodicea. Some who are poor outwardly are inwardly rich, rich in faith and in good works, rich in privileges, rich in bonds and deeds of gift, rich in hope, rich in reversion. Spiritual riches are usually the reward of great diligence; the diligent hand makes rich. Where there is spiritual plenty, outward poverty may be better borne; and when God’s people are impoverished in temporals, for the sake of Christ and a good conscience, he makes all up to them in spiritual riches, which are much more satisfying and enduring.” – Matthew Henry.
I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Many Israelites in the first century prided themselves on being Jews, the children of Abraham. While it was true of them physically, the Bible teaches that in the Lord’s eyes it was more important to be one spiritually! Any Jews that rejected the Messiah had no special favour with God. (See Luke 3:8) It is interesting that the word Jew comes from a root word meaning “praise.” But look at what the Lord states in Romans 2:28-29, For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. Galatians 3:26, 29 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The devil, and those who say they are Jews and are not, cast some of these believers into prison by falsely accusing them before the Emperors. To take the heat off of themselves during the ten persecutions (see below), these unsaved Jews betrayed the Christians and turned them over to those who wanted to kill them. These particular Jews proved they were not the people of God by killing and betraying those who truly were. The word Satan means adversary, enemy, and truly they were the synagogue of Satan! Satan, otherwise known as the Devil, is known as the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10), and these blasphemous Jews followed in his traitorous footsteps. It is believed that both the Apostles Peter and Paul were executed under the persecution by Nero, and the Apostle John was banished to the isle of Patmos during the reign of Domitian. But it wasn’t the Lord’s will that John be executed; the Lord still had some work for him to do. The keys of hell and of death were in Jesus’ hands, and no one could kill one of His servants unless the Lord Himself willed it! (Rev. 1:18; John 19:10-11) John was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the book of Revelation during his banishment.
Warning: This letter to the believers in Smyrna contains not one word of rebuke in it, though they were exhorted to keep being faithful and to keep their eyes on Jesus Christ.
Promise: 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.
Polycarp was a personal disciple of the Apostle John. As an old man, he was the bishop of the Church at Smyrna in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Persecution against the Christians broke out there and believers were being fed to the wild beasts in the arena. Polycarp was brought before the proconsul. Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” After repeated threatenings, in which Polycarp sought to witness to the proconsul, the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.” Polycarp was tied to the stake, but their efforts to burn him to death failed. Instead they chose to stab him and then burn his body. Truly, he was an example of a martyr who was faithful unto death, and I have no doubt there was a crown of life awaiting him in Heaven! (Quotes in italics taken from The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, pages 83, 84)
that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Every trial that the Lord allows or brings into our lives is for a purpose: to try us, prove us, purge and refine us. (See Malachi 3:3) Just as the specific trial the believers in Smyrna faced was only for ten days, even so all the trials and afflictions that we face will be only for a season. (See Ecclesiastes 3:1; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-8) The refiner uses the furnace to heat up the ore and remove all the dross and impurities, and then he removes the precious metal from the heat so it will not be damaged. Likewise, the Heavenly Refiner uses the furnace of affliction to try us and remove our impurities, then when the fiery trial has achieved it’s purpose in His precious child’s life, He will remove it from us. We can trust that our Heavenly Father does in fact know what He is doing, that He will perfect the work that He has started in us, and that we are safe in His hands. (See Psalm 138:8; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 1:12; Psalm 31:15)
be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. There are five crowns that are given as rewards to the faithful Christian. The word for crown in all of the following passages is stephanos, which is the victor’s crown.
1. The Incorruptible Crown – 1 Corinthians 9:25 And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. This crown is promised to those Christians who keep themselves in subjection and are temperate (self-controlled), and do not let the flesh dominate in their spiritual walk.
2. The Crown Of Rejoicing – 1 Thessalonians 2:19 For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? This crown will actually be those believers we have had a part in leading to the Lord and will one day spend eternity with in Heaven. (See also Philippians 4:1) No wonder it is called a crown of rejoicing!
3. The Crown Of Righteousness – 2 Timothy 4:8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing. This crown is the reward for those who faithfully yearn and look for the Lord’s appearing. (See also Titus 2:13)
4. The Crown Of Life – James 1:12 Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him. This crown is promised to those who endure temptation or are faithful unto death. The word for life in this passage and Revelation 2:10 means “spiritual life.” This crown is also referred to in Revelation 3:11.
5. The Crown Of Glory – 1 Peter 5:4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. This crown is the one that is promised to faithful Pastors (elders).
To The Overcomer: He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death. The first death is physical – the separation of the spirit and soul from the body. This is an appointment all will face, except for those believers who are still alive when Jesus Christ returns for His bride (the church) at the rapture. (See James 2:26) The second death is spiritual – eternity in the Lake of Fire, which all those who reject Christ as their personal Saviour will dwell. This is the separation from the presence of God forever. (See Revelation 20:11-15; 21:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9) The true believer, who has overcome by his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His free gift of salvation, will never face this second death (No Never!), but will dwell with the Lord forever in Heaven. (See 1 John 5:4-5)
Prophetic Application: This period of church history corresponds from the first to the third centuries. (Approximately 100-312 A.D.) The ten days refer to the ten persecutions of the Christians by the Roman Emperors. (Though two of the persecutions were in the first century. There is some overlap on these periods.)
Martyr’s Mirror (by Thielman J. Van Braght) lists these Roman Emperor’s names and the approximate dates for the beginning of each of these ten periods of persecution: (See also John Gill’s Exposition Of The Whole Bible, Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs, Halley’s Bible Handbook.)
Nero (66 A.D.)
Domitian (93 A.D.)
Trajan (102 A.D.)
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Verus (166 A.D.)
Septimus Severus (201 A.D.)
Maximin (237 A.D.)
Decius (251 A.D.)
Valerian (259 A.D.)
Aurelian (273 A.D.)
Diocletian (302 A.D.)
I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. There is also a secondary application to this phrase which I believe is very important to Christians today. “… the strong intellectual temptation of Greek philosophy began its subtle encroachment with the apex of Judaic defection realized under the Jewish scholar, Philo (B.C. 20-A.D. 50) [in Alexandria, Egypt]. With a ministry that spanned both Testaments, this ‘renegade son of Abraham’ established a theological school to promote the merger of Old Testament Judaism with Greek philosophy.” In a city that housed a library that was famous for its 700,000 scrolls, we can see that intellectualism was more important to the apostate Jews of this city than true Biblical spirituality. (2 Timothy 3:7 Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.) (Quote by William Grady, Final Authority, pg.74)
The first “Christian” headmaster of this school was Pantaenus (about 150 A.D.). This school is where many Jews who were dispersed to Africa studied theology; however, Pantaenus mixed his brand of Christianity and Bible doctrine with pagan philosophy; therefore these professing Jews were in fact apostates – much like many of the Jews during the time of the Maccabees. (Note: I am not recommending the first two books of Maccabees – which is part of the Apocrypha, but many do believe that though those specific books are not inspired Scripture, the basic history they portray is true.) This school was continued by Clement of Alexandria (about 190-202 A.D.), and later brought into prominence by Origen, their most famous student. Origen, among his many false doctrines, denied the inspiration of the Scriptures, was responsible for the corruption of Biblical texts (specifically in the Alexandrian stream of texts), and allegorized/spiritualized the Bible. He has been referred to by some as the father of textual criticism, and we can see by his many changes and editing of the Biblical texts that he was the one to lay the foundation for modern Bible versions. It is also believed that before the time of Christ, the Greek Septuagint only contained the books of Moses – until Origen took and translated the rest of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, according to his fanciful suppositions. “From this account we may at least derive as historical these facts: that the Pentateuch – for to it only the testimony refers – was translated into Greek, at the suggestion of Demetrius Phalareus, in the reign and under the patronage – if not by direction – of Ptolemy II. (Philadelphus).” (Alfred Edersheim, The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, Volume 1 Page 24) In other words, this corrupt text that modern version editors and translators like to use and justify their corrections with was in fact not written until several hundred years after Christ. It is not reliable at all.
The Emperor Constantine commissioned Eusebius (who lived 270-340 A.D.), a church historian and follower of Origen, to make a Greek Bible for his realm – this Bible, of which 50 copies were made, was taken from Origen’s text. Many believe that the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus are two of the surviving copies of this Bible, and these two corrupt manuscripts are the primary sources that Westcott and Hort and other modern textual critics used to translate their modern Bible versions from. (More about these two supposedly “oldest and best” manuscripts in David Cloud’s study: The Right Bible.) Jerome also used this Origen/Eusebius text to produce his Catholic Latin Vulgate. It is therefore not too difficult to see where this stream of texts has obtained its pollution, and how this corrupt stream has come down to us today.
Instead of reading the modern Bible versions, put together by those apostates who say they are Christians but are not, cling to the English Bible that has stood the test of time – the King James Bible!
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
The Holy Spirit is still speaking to the churches today – are you listening?
August 31st, 2004
The Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3: