This sermon is number 5 in a series of 20
The Book Of The Revelation - Part 5
"Smyrna, The Persecuted Church"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2007 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
Turn with me to Revelation chapter 2, to what is the shortest account of the letters given to the churches - the second, that being to Smyrna. Verse 8 of chapter 2, reading through to verse 11 - 'Smyrna, The Persecuted 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".
Now you will remember if you have been with us that in chapter 1 verse 19 we have a divinely inspired outline of this book of Revelation. John is told to 'Write the things which thou hast seen', that being the vision of the risen, glorified Lord as the High Priest Judge in the midst of His churches - and we find that in chapter 1 and verse 9 and following. Then he is also told to write 'the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter'. Now the things which shall be hereafter are from chapter 4 right to the end of the book, but the things which are are the things which were current to John in his day and age, that being chapters 2 and 3, the seven churches of Asia Minor. Of course, we noted that there were far more than seven assemblies in Asia Minor in John's day, and so these seven are selected by the Holy Spirit - seven is the number of completion, and so seven is representing the church age, the things which are now. So we have here a divine revelation concerning the church age. John was present in the age, we too are also.
So we are given a complete picture of the moral and spiritual history of the church of Jesus Christ. Now that can be understood in three ways, and let me remind you of those. The first is that that history is understood literally. We have to say that these seven churches were seven literal churches that existed in Asia Minor, those conditions were present in John's day. Not only are they understood literally, but secondly they are understood universally. What I mean by that is that they are illustrative of the good and bad conditions that will prevail in the church everywhere during every age of her existence. We did say last week that there is a marked resemblance between the seven churches here in Revelation, and the seven parables of the kingdom, mystery parables that we find in Matthew's gospel chapter 13. Incidentally, every one of these letters has the words spoken by the Lord that, 'Let him that hath ears to hear, hear', and those words were spoken in the mystery parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13.
Now I may have misled you last week by saying that these parables each corresponded to one of the seven churches, that was incorrect. I should have said that each of the parables really speak of some aspect of all of the churches during all of this church age. In other words, you can find the characteristics in each of the seven parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 in each of the churches right throughout the whole of the church age. Smyrna - how is that relevant to them? Well, the Lord taught right throughout His whole earthly ministry that there would not just be a tribulation period that would be second to none in the history and prophecy of this world, but all churches throughout every age would face impending tribulation and persecution for their faith during the whole of the church age. The Lord Jesus said: 'In the world ye shall have tribulation, be of good cheer, I have overcome the world'. The apostles agreed, Paul in 2 Timothy 3: 'Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution'.
Such a time would come for every church of every age, a time when believers would be separated from mere professors of Christianity because of the persecution and trial that would come upon them. That corresponds, incidentally, with a couple of verses from the parable of the sower - listen to them, Matthew 13 verses 20-21: 'He that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended'. So you see how that's relevant, and also how the parable of the wheat and tares, and various other parables are relevant. Let me say, and this might go over some of your heads, that these seven parables in Matthew 13 really represent the external nature of the kingdom of God: how it is perceived by the world, that is professing Christendom in our age, during this church age - whereas the seven churches are the Lord Jesus Christ's view of how the churches actually are in truth and in spirit. Well, I'll leave that there, that is the universal aspect: these seven churches represent every church during every age in different aspects.
So there is a literal approach, there is a universal approach, and then there is a prophetic approach - that approach simply interprets these seven churches as being a preview, chronologically, of the history of Christendom from Pentecost right to the rapture of the church - each of these seven churches representing a distinct period. For instance, last week we thought about the church at Ephesus, and we saw that that was the loveless church, but it also was the post-apostolic church. It was founded by the apostles, and it transpired the period of the late years of the first and the early years of the second century. Generally speaking it was a praiseworthy church, but we see, as church history testifies, that already that post-apostolic church was beginning to forsake her first love. Then that brings us on to the church at Smyrna, understood prophetically as the persecuted church, the church from about the first century right through to the fourth century, the church that endured the persecution of various Roman emperors. We could call this church 'the martyr age of the church'.
Now it would seem incredible if such similarities with history were only accidental, but though that is the case, I have said in previous weeks that we should not press these analogies beyond their bounds. So tonight I want us to consider first and foremost the literal approach to this church at Smyrna, what it meant to the people, the Christians of this particular first century church that John is writing to. Then I want us to think of the fourth approach that I introduced you to last week, and that is the personal approach. This letter, as all the seven letters, has something to say to each of us as Christians. Notice verse 7a: 'He that hath ears to hear', in the singular, 'Let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches'. It is for us as individuals to take heed to God's word, to Christ's revelation to each of these churches, and apply them to our own lives.
We noted last week that each of the seven churches, they are seven letters - with minor exceptions - that are organised in a general pattern. First of all we are introduced to a characteristic of the Lord Jesus Christ from the vision that John received in chapter 1, the vision of Christ as the High Priest Judge in the midst of His churches. The particular characteristic that is introduced to each church is fitting when we consider the needs of that particular church. As far as Smyrna goes, in verse 8 you see that the Lord Jesus is introduced to them as, 'the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive'. If you look down at verse 10, you will see that the Lord Jesus is encouraging His people in Smyrna to be 'faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life'. The characteristic that is revealed to Smyrna is for their particular need, to stand firm in the midst of tribulation and suffering, and not deny their Lord. It is particularly applicable to these would-be martyrs.
A vision of Christ - I hope you will agree - is what we all need. But there is a particular aspect to the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ in His Great High Priestly judging ministry to the church that you need to see - I wonder what it is this evening? First of all we see this general pattern in the characteristic of Christ that is revealed, then secondly there is a commendation that is given to the church. In verse 9 we have it here to Smyrna: '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'. All the churches, all seven of them, are given a commendation except the last, the seventh, the church of Laodicea.
Now often in the general pattern we find thirdly that there is a criticism of each church, but we see here that Smyrna has no criticism. The only other church of the seven which does not have a criticism is the church of Philadelphia, and that's very interesting - not only because it is praiseworthy that Christ doesn't find grounds to criticise them, but also when we consider that the church we studied last week, Ephesus, that had left their first love, has more praise than Smyrna. Indeed Thyatira, which we'll study in a couple of weeks time, has also more praise than Smyrna - and yet these two churches are two of the most criticised by the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I'll leave you to work that one out, but I think it's in the nature of our Lord Jesus - who is full of grace and truth - to commend first when He can, particularly those churches that He's about to critique.
There is no criticism, and there is no corrective command because there is no criticism - which is often the fourth aspect to these letters. But rather, instead of a corrective command, we have in verse 10 counsel given after the Lord's commendation: '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'. Then, as in each of these letters, in verse 11 we have the final factor which is a commitment that the Lord gives to the overcomers of that church, a promise that He gives: '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'.
We will look at each of these as we go through our study tonight, but let us look first of all at the city that is the city of Smyrna. Now Smyrna, as I've already said, is the modern day city in Turkey of Izmir, and it was an important seaport in the day of the apostle John. It was about 35 miles north of Ephesus that we considered last week. Now there is nothing known about this church of Smyrna, how it began, how things transpired in it up to this point that we find it in John's Apocalypse. Yet with all the persecution that had endured, we find that Smyrna endured, and there is still a witness and testimony to Jesus Christ today in Izmir in modern-day Turkey.
Now there are several things I want you to note about this city where this church was found. The first is: it was an idyllic city. Smyrna occupied a most attractive site in Asia Minor, in fact it was known as the 'lovely Smyrna, the crown of Ionia, the ornament of Asia'. Yet behind that physical facade of great beauty there lurked an evil, the Satanic opposition to Christ in the whole of Asia. Now that's interesting for us to note, because it certainly is representative of our society and world in which we live. Whatever the outward appearances of beauty and attractiveness might be, we've got to face the reality that outward appearances matter very little. We live in a world that is, generally speaking, against Christ - whatever it might say about Him. Smyrna was idyllic, yet behind it all there was something inherently Satanic.
Secondly please note that this was not only an idyllic but an industrious city. The name 'Smyrna' really means 'Myrrh', and Smyrna as a city operated a trade in myrrh - that is, the aromatic resin. They produced from that resin from the tree a gum that was often used for embalming dead bodies. It was an industrious city that was famous for myrrh. Thirdly it is also marked for its idolatry, it was an idolatrous city. It offered worship to the emperor through an imperial cult, and this cult, and indeed a large Jewish population, made life extremely difficult for the believers of the Lord Jesus Christ in Smyrna. None of the other cities of the seven cities written to here in the Apocalypse were so stained with the blood of the martyrs like Smyrna.
Now can I just pause there for a moment, because I think there is a worthy lesson for us to note: out of all the seven churches - which, let me remind you, are generally found in the same vicinity - only Smyrna suffered like this. Why? We could equally ask the question: why is it that some people, some believers in the Lord Jesus Christ indeed, suffer more than others? Why is it that the godliest of men and women seem to suffer more than others? Well, I have no answer to that, save to say that I think the answer lies deep in the sovereignty of God - but it's worth noticing. Smyrna suffered more than the rest of the seven.
So that is the city of Smyrna: it was idyllic with a Satanic undertone; it was industrious in the production of this aromatic resin, myrrh; and it was idolatrous in the emperor cult. Secondly I want you to note this characteristic of Christ that is revealed to the church at Smyrna. Verse 8 gives us that, the second half: 'These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive'. The first characteristic we have of the Lord revealed to Smyrna is 'the first and the last' - incidentally, which is a description of God that John, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, plucked out of Isaiah's prophecy in the Old Testament. It is a title for Jehovah that is being applied and attributed to the Lord Jesus Christ - hence, you see, He is God of God.
But the point, I believe, that is being made by the Spirit is that this God, who is the first and the last - look at verse 8 - is also the One who became flesh, the incarnate Son of God, and who literally, as verse 8 says, became dead. He lived eternally as the eternal Son, uncreated, eternally begotten of the Father - but He became dead, having been incarnated, going to the cross, dying as a sacrifice for sin, He entered into death voluntarily as a sacrifice for sins forever. Verse 8 says He became dead and, literally, 'He is the one who became dead and who lives' - presently He is living, for He rose again the third day in the power of an endless life, and He lives eternally and gives life to all who believe in Him. So in the midst of Smyrna's suffering, the vision of Christ that is given to them is of One who suffered, who died, who entered death, but who is victorious over it all.
First of all the Holy Spirit wants Smyrna to see He is the Eternal God - and, boy, if you're going through any form of suffering tonight as a Christian, you need to get a glimpse of Jesus Christ in His deity as the first and the last, the eternal God, and realise that the power of Christ can support anyone, at any time, in any circumstance. He is God! But secondly the Holy Spirit wanted Smyrna to see that though He is the eternal God, He went the same way as they were presently going. He went through a baptism of blood, their blessed and glorified Head was crucified - and in death He slew death, and became Master of it. Having been tested and tried, and lived and died, and rose again, He has now become a Great High Priest to those who believe in Him - and He can enter into the suffering of our infirmities because of all that.
The first and the last who became dead and lives - boy, how they needed to hear that, because what the Lord Jesus was saying to them was: 'You can have all my compassion, you can enter into all my companionship, because you are going the way that your Master went'. Are you hearing that tonight, suffering child of God? Of course, Smyrna had its own death and resurrection. Round about 580 BC the city was destroyed, and then in 290 BC it was rebuilt again completely. So there is an allusion there - the first and the last, the one who was dead and is alive - to their particular history. But Smyrna's name, as we have seen already, means 'myrrh' - and that aromatic resin was associated with death, the embalming of the dead. But the process of getting that resin out of the tree was something deeply symbolic to these suffering Christians in the church of Smyrna, because to get this resin an incision had to be made in the bark of the tree, the sap had to be allowed to bleed, and then that fragrant and bitter resin had to be produced through the wounding of that tree.
Prophetically speaking we are entering into a church period where, for 200 years, the church would be crushed by the iron heel of pagan Roman. As we look down this passage, in verse 10 it is prophesied that for ten days they would be thrown in prison, and would be tested and tried, and they would need to be faithful unto death. Now you might not know this, according to the history books there were 10 separate attempts by 10 separate Roman emperors to exterminate and eradicate Christianity from the Roman empire. The tenth attempt was by an emperor by the name of Diocletian, and that tenth attempt lasted 10 years! Christians during those 200 years or so were martyred, butchered, burned for Jesus Christ - and the church in Smyrna particularly typifies that prophetically speaking. They, like the resin that they represent, would be cut, bruised, wounded, crushed for Christ - but from that process of tribulation there would be a savour, and a fragrant smell that would ascend unto God that had never gone up before.
They were never as Christ-like as when they were suffering. Let's not miss that please, because our Lord Jesus Christ was the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant of Jehovah. Incidentally, myrrh is always associated with Him. In Matthew chapter 2 we find that the wise men brought - what did they bring? Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then when we travel from Bethlehem 33 or so years, we come to Calvary and He's hanging on the cross, dying for men's sins, and they reach up a sponge on a spear and try to give Him wine mingled with myrrh to dull the pain. Then we find Him dead, being buried, and Nicodemus, John gospel tells us, brought an embalming ointment of myrrh to prepare His dead body for the tomb. What suffering our Lord Jesus experienced from His birth, to the cross, to the tomb itself. Right throughout the Old Testament it is used - that is, myrrh - as a type of our Lord Jesus Christ in His suffering. But there's something I want you to note: in the Old Testament, in Isaiah chapter 60 and verse 6, we read prophetically of when our Lord Jesus Christ will come again. He will be presented at that time with gold, and with frankincense, but there is something missing! The myrrh isn't there! Because when He comes again, Isaiah 60 verse 2 tells us, He will not be coming as the Suffering Servant of Jehovah, He will be coming as the Sovereign King of Kings and the Lord of Lords to judge, to reign, and to rule.
Suffering child of God, just like Smyrna, you need to see these characteristics of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the great, the epitome, the pinnacle of all human suffering - and yet He is the divine, the first and the last, who became dead and now lives. Fix your eyes on Him, John tells Smyrna - that's what you need to do, for just one glimpse of Him in glory will the toils of life repay. Those are the characteristics of the Christ revealed.
Now come with me to verse 9, the commendation of the church: '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'. 'I know', first of all the Lord Jesus says to Smyrna, 'thy tribulation'. Now look at that word for a moment, for that word is the Greek word 'thlipsis' - it is the word which conveys the idea of pressing out the grapes until the juice comes forth. In classical Greek language it was used of a huge rock that would crush anything beneath it, and here the word is used in the singular, and that means this is a great tribulation that these people are experiencing - not the great tribulation, but a great trial, serious trouble. 'I know thy tribulation', what must that have meant for those Christians in Smyrna?
Then He goes on: 'I know thy tribulation and poverty'. Look at the word, there are two Greek words for poverty, the first speaks of having no surplus - in other words, you've got enough to get through but no more. That's not the word that is used here, it's the other word that means 'destitution', absolutely nothing! Not even enough to get through, sheer beggary! Now under the persecution of Domitian, who is the present emperor as John is living and writing, the worship of him as the emperor was compulsory upon every citizen. In Smyrna, therefore, it meant something to be a Christian - you had to stand up and be counted! You see, many of the trade guilds, a Christian couldn't be a member because they had pagan associations. If you were a Christian and were seen to be a rebel to the cause of the emperor, the likelihood was that your employer would get rid of you very quickly. Christians were seen in the empire at this time as atheists, because they did not believe in the gods of Rome. They were seen as traitors who were committing treason because they would not acknowledge that the emperor was lord. So it was very easy to arouse a rabble, and to go to a Christian's home and smash it up, and pillage his goods, and even confiscate his possessions in the name of Caesar and the empire. There's no insurance policies, and as a Christian you would be living in one of the wealthiest cities in existence in Asia Minor, let alone the empire, and yet like these people in Smyrna you would be destitute - destitute.
Yet with all their destitution, look what the Lord says in verse 9: 'but thou art rich' - thou art rich. They have suffered the loss of many things, indeed all things I would say, and though they were poor in this world they were rich in faith! Indeed, as poor, they were able to make many rich because of their faith. What others thought was wealth was actually poverty, and what people saw in their lives as destitution, according to God was rich. Now we're running ahead of ourselves, but if you turn with me to the church of Laodicea in chapter 3 and verse 17, they had the opposite said of them by the Lord Jesus - chapter 3:17: 'Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked'. They thought they were rich, yet they were poor! The church in Smyrna was poor, destitute, and yet in Christ's eyes they were rich!
Can I ask you a very searching question: have you got the values of Christ or the values of this world? Do I need to repeat that? Have you got the values of Christ or the values of this world? Do you value material things over spiritual? Incidentally, do you see suffering as an enriching experience in the Christian life? It's not the popular health and wealth gospel that you'll hear on the God Channel, but it's the Bible's teaching regarding suffering: it enriches the Christian's life and testimony! That is why, often, the godliest of men and women have suffered the most. Charles Stanley said: 'Jesus is specially the partner of His poorer servants' - why is that? Because to be poor, to be destitute, is to go the way that the Master went.
Can I remind you of a verse that you know well, 2 Corinthians 8:9: 'For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich', that's the same word that is used here of Smyrna, 'yet for your sakes he became poor', that is the same word for destitute used of Smyrna, 'that ye through his poverty and destitution might be spiritually rich'. It's the way He went. It was the way He came into this world - Joseph and Mary, heavy with child, came to the inn, and an inn was a place where you were judged regarding what you had, and they were refused entrance. He was born in a stable. Then when Mary comes to bring the offering to the Temple, after birth she brings a working man's offering. The Lord Jesus for 30 years adorns the apron of a carpenter in His father's shop. When He begins His ministry, He has to ask a man for a penny. He borrows a boat in which to preach. The very tomb that His cold corpse lies in after His crucifixion is not His own! The moment He died, He left nothing behind Him, even His clothes were gambled for by the soldiers. Yet being destitute, He possessed everything! He holds the world in His hand!
Is that the way we are? Do you know what our problem is? Oh yes, we ought to be thankful for what we have here in the West, but I think all of us have got too rich - we have you know. I think we would be better men and women, myself included, if we had a lot less. Churches are often judged today on how much money they have, and how much clout they can bring - that's not how Christ judged this church: they were destitute, yet they were rich.
'I know thy tribulation, I know thy poverty, I know' - look at it - 'the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan'. Now that word for 'blasphemy' is the word for 'slander': 'I know those that slander you', and this slander was caused by Jews who called themselves Jews but were not. Now what that simply means is the same as what Paul said in Romans chapter 2, they were Jews outwardly in external religiosity, but they were not circumcised in their heart toward God. Isn't it amazing that these Jews, who in the Old Testament were called the congregation of Jehovah, are now being spoken of as a synagogue of Satan. Satan, incidentally, is the accuser of the brethren. Satan is the one who is inspiring these Jews to slander God's people in Smyrna. They may have been the Judiasers of the book of Galatians, but I happen to think that these Jews primarily were a group of folk who were rabble-rousers, who were just stirring up trouble towards these Christians.
Now historians tell us of the Jews' eagerness in aiding the martyrdom of Polycarp that you have heard about already. Polycarp was martyred on the Sabbath day, and even though it was the Sabbath the Jews gathered the wood for the fire - it didn't matter! You've got to understand why they were so antagonistic towards the early Christians. You see the empire was reasonably tolerant towards Christians initially, as they were to any religion providing they did not threaten the peace. They looked upon the early Christians really as a sect of Judaism, and so they were allowed to practise as the Jews were. But you see the Jews didn't like Christians being seen as part of Judaism, and so they created a fuss and often spread slander concerning the Christians. Now this is not a Jewish slander in the early church, but it certainly was one that went about, and that was that the love feast - when the believers broke bread and drank wine - was the practice of cannibalism, the flesh and the blood of the Lord Jesus. They slandered the church as cannibals!
Let me remind you: it doesn't matter that it says here that the Jews were bringing this slander, as many of the pagans often did. In all this neither the Jews nor the Romans were the real problem - we've got to see that. This had become a synagogue of Satan, Satan was the instigator behind this persecution. The seven churches at Asia that we have before us here in chapters 2 and 3, Satan is mentioned five times as being against the church! When are we ever going to wake up to the fact that Satan is real and alive in the 21st century, and he is working against us - and, incidentally, some Christians are working along with him! Ephesians 6:12 says: 'we wrestle not against flesh and blood', we've got to see beyond flesh and blood, and see that there are spiritual principalities and powers in high places that are orchestrating this persecution towards the church in John's day and in ours. Christ says, this is the message, 'I know thy tribulation, I know thy poverty, I know the slander of the synagogue of Satan'. Isn't it wonderful that they could know that He knew? Child of God tonight, He knows:
'He knows the storms
That would your way oppose,
He knows, and furthermore
He tempers every wind that blows'.
Their commendation: 'I know thy tribulation, thy poverty, and the blasphemy'. Fourthly look at the counsel to the church, verse 10: 'Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer'. Hold on a minute now! 'Thou shalt suffer'? Would they be forgiven in thinking: 'Lord, hold on a minute! OK, we've endured a lot so far, but the things which we shall suffer - future? No more, Lord! Is it not enough, Lord?'. Do you ever feel like that? There's no talk of deliverance here, there's no talk of the miraculous - whilst God can do it, it's not mentioned here - but Christ is telling them: 'You're going to have to go through more! You might be destitute, but there's more to come!'. It's frightening, isn't it? Yet please note, we don't find any complaining among them. I know I would be complaining, wouldn't you? But they were Christ-like.
Can I remind you of what Peter said: 'What glory is it if, when we be buffeted for our faults, we take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, you do take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were we called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously'. Not a complaint! The Lord counsels them first to be fearless, 'fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer'. We fear many things, don't we? Yet they were facing things that we could understand them fearing. We need a reality check as we study this passage of Scripture tonight: these Christians were facing prison, they were facing death, and the Lord said to them literally, 'Stop being afraid!'.
Why should they stop being afraid? Well, all the reasons we've already given concerning the identity and power of Christ - but the reason specifically here is, Jesus says that the devil, the accuser, will put them in prison and try them for 10 days. Now imagine this for a moment: they are being put in prison for something they didn't do, they are being slandered - imagine if that came to your door tonight, and you were carried off to your local prison for something you didn't do, would you be afraid? If there was a rope at the end of it all, or an electric chair? Yet they were told not to be afraid. They were in the company of Joseph, and Jeremiah, and Paul, and Peter, all who had been behind bars for the cause of God. Now prophetically, as we've said, these 10 days mean something else, but literally they mean 10 days - and that is a limited time of intense persecution. So how could Christ tell them: 'Don't be afraid'? This is why: it will come to pass - after 10 days of intense persecution, it will be over. That might be cold comfort to us, but not to them.
I love that little phrase in the Scriptures, and I think some of you love it too: 'And it came to pass'. It will end, don't fear - though this might be instigated by Satan, it is controlled by Christ! Do you hear that? Often our sufferings do come from the devil, but praise God: our Lord Jesus Christ is in control. What He was saying to these believers was simply: he might rob you of your wealth, he might rob you of your health, he might rob you of your very life - but he can't rob you of your eternal riches! Maybe we have become so earthly minded that that doesn't matter any more. It mattered to them because they didn't have anything else.
Be fearless, then the second counsel was: be faithful. Incidentally, this is coming from the One who in chapter 1 verse 5 is spoken of as 'the faithful witness' - be faithful rather than renounce your faith Smyrnan Christians. I have really searched my heart today, I want you to search yours: could you be faithful unto death? Now let me add a caveat to that: I believe God gives grace to die whenever the time comes - that's maybe why I don't feel like being able to do that just now. Yet they were encouraged in anticipation. What are we: fearful or faithful? Now it might even be fearful - these people were going to die, but your fear might be even to be a witness with your mouth of Christ. We all know about spiritual lockjaw when it comes to speaking a word for the Saviour.
Fearful or faithful, if these believers were faithful unto death, they would receive a reward - look at verse 10. They would be given a crown of life. Now the Greek word there for 'crown' is 'stephanos', not 'diadema' - 'diadema' is a kingly crown, 'stephanos' is the laurel wreath that was put on the head of a victorious athlete. James 1:12 speaks of the same crown: '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'. Under trial, even to the point of death, there is a reward. Now there are several crowns that are reward for believers, and I haven't the time to go into those tonight, and I don't even want to because I want to labour on this one: will you, will I, get a reward for enduring trial, for suffering? Now it's not suffering with an ingrown toenail, this is suffering for the cause of Christ. You say: 'Sure, who's suffering for the cause of Christ today?'. I don't have time to elaborate on this, but I believe all of us, in some shape or form, should be suffering for the cause of Christ today. Maybe it's because we're not taking our stand? Will we be faithful or fearful? Will I? When it comes - and it's very close to the day - when to say that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination in the eyes of God, you'll be put in prison for it, will I say it? Or will we just keep quiet about it? That's what we're talking about here. The Lord Jesus says: 'You count the cost. Lose your life for My sake, and you'll find it'. This is the crown of life:
'Give thy sons to bear the message, glorious;
Give thy wealth to speed them on their way.
Pour out thy soul for them in prayer, victorious;
And all thou spendest, Jesus will repay!'.
Do we believe that? That the suffering of this age, this present time, is not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us - that was the counsel to this church. Be fearless, be faithful, and I will honour you! Fifthly and finally, the commitment to the overcomers in verse 11: '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'. Again it's singular, 'ear', 'he that hears', there is an individual responsibility upon us all here tonight to think about the cost of discipleship. The magnitude is tremendous, because the one who lends their ear to the Spirit and what He says, might find himself or herself tested to the very point of death! That's more than a dander down an aisle, isn't it?
That death for these Smyrnan Christians could have been torture, then maybe the rack, perhaps out to the stake to be burned, or to be fed to lions. Now, if you were in this church, Smyrna, would you overcome? Remember who the overcomers are: in one sense they are those who, John says, are born of God and overcome the world, and it's our faith that gives us that victory - those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. This is a church where believers had to prove their faith by their devotion to Christ to the very point of death! If that was you, would you take the name of Christ? The Lord said that if they did, they would not be hurt by the second death - that is in the emphatic double negative: 'You certainly will never be harmed' - never!
Do you know what the Lord is saying? You as a believer-overcomer might have to face death, and pass through death, and a gruesome death at that - but not the second death! Is that the way we live? The second death, if you don't know, is what Revelation 20 describes as the lake of fire - it's separation from God for all eternity. Now all of us might have to die once, but some will die twice because they have never believed the Gospel. If that's you, my friend - make sure that you're believing in the Lord Jesus. Because the sinless Saviour died, can you say, 'My sinful soul is counted free; for God, the just, is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me'? Are you believing? Are you saved? Are you born again?
We've been to Smyrna tonight, the purifying lamp of affliction has caused the lamp of testimony to burn all the more brilliantly - but I want to ask you as we close tonight: what if, one day soon, you will be called to be faithful unto death? You know, it wasn't long after this book of Revelation was written that Polycarp, a bishop in Smyrna, 86 years of age, had a knock on his door. Then he was hauled before the courts of Smyrna to renounce Jesus Christ, and they said to him: 'Just say, 'Caesar is Lord', and we'll let you go'. He flatly refused, he never wavered, and said these words: 'Fourscore and six years I have served the Lord Jesus, He has done me no wrong, how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?' - and he was burned alive. The present-day church of Smyrna told the world in April of last year that five Muslims entered a Christian publishing company, and killed three believers in the southeastern province of Malatya, Turkey - 300 miles from Antioch where believers were first called Christians. One of them was a man called Necati, and he was buried in his home town of Izmir, Smyrna. His wife says these words - wives, could you say this? - 'His death was full of meaning because he died for Christ and he lived for Christ. Necati was a gift from God, I feel honoured that he was in my life. I feel crowned with honour, I want to be worthy of that honour'. Do you know what the pastor said? I think at the funeral, he asked the world: 'Don't pray against persecution, pray for perseverance'.
No later than three weeks ago a dozen Christians in the Izmir district of Istanbul were attending Sunday morning worship, and were suddenly rounded up and taken to police stations. They were all accused of holding illegal meetings, and were fined, and the church in that Izmir district remains closed and sealed pending the results of a court case that could take months. Do you know something? The devil hasn't changed, this world hasn't changed, Jesus Christ hasn't changed - but the Western church has changed. In the south of Scotland there is a monument to two women. For their faith they were brought to the sea, sentenced to death by the stake - and the stake was put, for the older woman, way out in the ocean. She was asked to recant her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and she refused, and she died of drowning. The young girl whose stake was planted nearer the shore watched it all, and as the tide rose to her ankles, then to her calves, then to her hips, then to her chest, then over her head - a couple of soldiers ran and lifted the stake high, and said: 'We'll give you another chance, recant and live'. What would you have done? She refused.
'Fear not, be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life'. Next week, in the will of God, we'll look at 'Pergamos, The Compromising Church'.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the fifth recording in his 'The Book Of The Revelation' series, entitled "Smyrna, The Persecuted Church" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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