The Persecuted Church

Revelation 2:8-11 Zechariah 3:1-9

The Lord of the Church next writes to the assembly at Smyrna, a church in very different circumstances with different needs from the church in Ephesus. Although only a two-day walk separated them, these two groups of believers had responded to their specific ministry conditions in markedly different ways. Both were living and serving where there was much opposition to the Gospel, the tactics used in each city had differing focus: in Ephesus, challenge was doctrinal; in Smyrna, challenge was personal. Ephesus church responded by becoming entrenched, building walls for protection, seemingly too effective in the process given the Lord’s rebuke to them. On the other hand, Smyrna church had different view of circumstances and how they should respond; in circular letter written ca. 155 AD:

“The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium”; sojourning, visiting temporarily, perhaps as a guest

“For the devil did indeed invent many things against them”; understood who the real source of their challenge was, Satan and not the residents of Smyrna or even the civil authority.

What was Smyrna like?

Beautiful city, rivalling Ephesus and Pergamum in importance, each of which claimed the spot of “first of Asia”. Smyrna first because of beauty and size; like Ephesus 35 miles to south an important center of commerce, having a well-protected and easily defended harbor. Distinguished in every area of literature, most notably as the city of Homer, author of epic Greek poems – Iliad and Odyssey. Famous also for science and medicine, a city of some wealth, large Jewish population. AD 26 petitioned emperor Tiberius for privilege of building a temple and dedicating it to his honor; permission granted, of course, second temple in Asia devoted to emperor worship. City extended from harbor’s edge to the summit of Pagos, primary hill on which city was built, its peak encircled by public buildings giving the appearance of a crown; in fact, “crown of Smyrna” familiar phrase around town. Polycarp was leading Christian of church at Smyrna during 1st century, according to tradition a disciple of John the Apostle. For all its benefits, Smyrna was hard place to be a Christian when this letter was written to it. It would become even more difficult as time passed and opposition to Christianity intensified; were a church in need of real encouragement.

A. Characteristics of Christ v.8 the Glorious Living God-Man

Each letter begins with reference to chapter 1 vision of Christ, not only identifying the person of the author but also his role relationship with the church. Here in our text he is represented as:

The First and the Last, who died and came to life again. cf. Rev.1:17-18 the Glorious Living God-Man

“This is a letter from the Lord who himself was put to death by his enemies and yet rose again in glory.” Lenski The God-Man who speaks with authority (First and Last) and who speaks from experience (died and came to life). That the one who was dead now speaks authoritatively to his church shows how the Glorious Living God-Man is uniquely suited to provide comfort and encouragement, not merely sympathy. The “First and Last” knows the purpose for which all things occurs, how those events and circumstances fit into his master plan. The resurrected Christ knows and understands persecution first hand, even more, has been and will be victorious over his enemies and ours.

Christ’s victory over sin, Satan and death gives him the right to promise blessing and rewards to those who faithfully (notice I didn’t say 100% successfully) resist sin and Satan. Jesus’ promise to the faithful among the church at Smyrna and the church at large that they will receive blessing for perserverance is not a half-time pep talk. It’s real encouragement with the guarantee of real reward given by God himself.

B. Commendation v.9

Gracefully suffers tribulation and poverty – does not go unnoticed by the Lord of the Church. Are already experiencing pressure and it will increase. Present pressure meant they had little by way of possessions or opportunities to provide for their own needs and the needs of the church. Social outcasts with limited possibilities for employment, advancement or outreach.

Christ takes opportunity to encourage saints in Smyrna to look beyond the immediate – “I know your …poverty but you are rich”. According to the world’s standard and that of those persecuting them, they had nothing; from Jesus’ point of view they were rich, abounding in resources. Important for those experiencing tribulation: this world, this life, all that seems so important day to day is not the sum total of reality. There’s another dimension and another life: spiritual dimension, life after death, both far more valuable in big picture. Remember: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” (Eph. 1:3) “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)

Source of difficulty: those acting as agents of Satan, blaspheming or slandering God and his true children. Situation where Satan used those who had credibility – religious in their own right (or profession at least), influence – because of financial resources and position in community, loyalty to those in power to bring false charges against Christians. Same scenario as Zechariah’s vision of Joshua the high priest; will have same outcome also, fact probably not lost on church at Smyrna.

At Ephesus Satan used lies and deceptions about the true content of the Gospel message to damage Christ’s church. If Satan could convince religious people to mix error with the truth, the Gospel would lose its power and the church would be neutralized. At Smyrna he used lies and slander about the character of God’s people in order to halt the spread of the Gospel and its influence on the culture. If Satan could remove effective witnesses for the Gospel from the church, especially if they were part of the leadership, the remaining members would present less of a threat.

C. Criticism – none

D. Instruction v.10

Do not be afraid. It’s not a surprise to God, it’s not their fault – the result of something they did wrong, they’re not being punished for some secret sin. Regardless of what man throws at them, they are still secure in God’s keeping. It’s also far less frightening when facing the known rather than unknown, hence the warning that the future will include suffering, imprisonment and perhaps death.

Expect persecution. 1 Pet. 4:12-16 Matt. 5:10-11 John 16:33 Peter provides theology of suffering, why to expect it and how to respond to it. Jesus was persecuted and killed for his faith, Christians shouldn’t be surprised if they are treated the same way. In fact, it should be cause for rejoicing, that Christ thinks they are worthy to suffer for the sake of the Kingdom.

Be faithful, even unto death. By God’s encouragement and strengthening, will be able to persevere even if it means losing life for Christ. Will not be expected or required of every saint, persecution is to last only ten days – significant, purposeful, but of limited duration; it will come to an end. God has set boundaries around his church just as around Job beyond which Satan cannot go; Satan, therefore, will not succeed in destroying a church or the church even though he may cause much hurt and sorrow. The hurt is not without purpose – “that you may be tested”; again to consider Job, “But He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.” (Job. 23:10)

E. Promise v.10-11

Will receive a crown of life; will not be hurt by the second death. For friends and neighbors “crown of Smyrna” was a big deal, an important part of their identity. Yet meaning, significance would fade or even disappear over time. Jesus promised a better crown, an imperishable one (1 Cor. 9:25), a crown of life “promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12) Not everyone will receive that crown; it’s promised to those who “endure testing” and have “proved to be genuine” (Ibid, NET). When the testing, the purifying is complete, will be removed from the fire and stamped with approval by Christ himself.

Those who have that stamp of approval have nothing to fear after the first death, physical death. No way will they be in danger of the second death, described in Revelation 20 and 21 as the end which awaits all those whose name is not found in the Book of Life. Important to recognize this is real hope, real encouragement Christ gives. Applies just as much to people today – Unreached People Groups; places like Sudan, North Korea, China, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Egypt – where brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted for sake of the Gospel. You might wonder, does what is given in these 4 verses really work? Consider Polycarp.

The Letter of the Smyrneans on the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp

The letter written from the church at Smyrna to the church at Philomelium (250 mi. east of Smyrna, near Pisidian Antioch, visited by Paul 2nd missionary journey after Lystra and Iconium) was intended for much wider circulation and was probably written shortly after 155 or 165 A.D. …The account was written by an eyewitness who described in detail and took great pains to acknowledge that even these horrific events were an inseparable part of God’s sovereign plan and will.

In this we may behold the afflicted condition of the godly in this world, and all that will live godly must prepare themselves for it. But if it so be, that we have a more peacable portion, let us account it as a great mercy of God, and enjoy it with thankfulness for our own edification and the setting forth of the glory of Christ. David Pareus

 

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