Say that you’re flying along at 36,000 feet and experience a bit of turbulence, a few potholes in the sky. And let’s say that the captain can see an unavoidable thunderstorm ahead. Would you rather that he come on the intercom and say, “Sorry about that folks, nothing to worry about.” Or would you rather hear, “Ladies and gentlemen we have some weather ahead, please return to your seats and buckle in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.” While we may not want to hear it we would rather know what is ahead. In the same way, Jesus didn’t mince words with the church at Smyrna and what was coming their way.
Jesus’ second letter to the churches of Asia is addressed to Smyrna. Jesus wrote, “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’” (Revelation 2:8–11, NASB95) To dig deeper, we need to expose some history about Smyrna. Even though Christ followers seemed to be in poverty, Smyrna was a wealthy and prosperous city. It was about 40 miles north of Ephesus. It was acclaimed as the first city of Asia and was deeply connected with Rome. Smyrna was a center of emperor worship by Senate acclamation. Around the time this letter was written it was required of all Roman Citizens to maintain a certificate confirming that they worshiped Caesar as a god. All it took was a pinch of salt and repeating a few simple words annually before witnesses.
Jesus neither praises nor corrects the Smyrna church. He instead recognizes their current troubles and warns them that it is going to get worse. Jesus reminds them that life circumstances do not always reflect the condition of the heart. Even though they live in unjust poverty they are rich. James put it this way, “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5, NASB95) Neither poverty nor riches are an indication of someone’s spiritual condition. It is possible that refusing to worship Caesar had economic repercussions and that was the source of their poverty. Adding to their troubles was the lies propagated by the Jewish community in Smyrna. Think for a moment about some of the Jewish heroes of the faith that stood against political pressure like Moses, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or Daniel, and Mordecai in Esther. But the Jews in Smyrna turned on those refusing to worship Caesar. Given Jesus’ condemnation of the Smyrna synagogue, it is possible that they had abandoned real faith for political expediency and financial gain. And if that wasn’t bad enough Jesus warned the Smyrna followers that things were going to get much worse.
Jesus encourages the Smyrna believers not to fear what they are about to suffer. Some are going to be thrown into prison, some will be tested and tortured for a time, some will be killed because of their faith. Much to the chagrin of modern “pop” Christianity Jesus doesn’t promise them a way out nor a way through. It is going to be a tough choice, one that is full of injustice, unfairness, hatred, and loss. This is real persecution, a real war on Christ followers. Jesus’ encouragement is three-fold. First, do not fear. Jesus taught in Matthew, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28, NASB95) Fear is the opposite of faith and is a form of idol worship. What I mean by that is our fears can become idols that affect our choices more than our faith in God. We are, in essence, saying that what we fear is more powerful than God. Jesus’ second encouragement was to be faithful, to hold fast even through death. Holding on to Jesus in the midst of the storms of life is not always easy. Imagine having to choose between eating and staying faithful to Jesus, that’s the position that these believers were in. I know that some readers are also in that same position. All I can tell you is what Jesus said to Smyrna, be faithful because there is more to life than what we see today. Jesus’ third encouragement reminded them that Jesus is the first and the last, He has suffered death and is alive, and rewards those that stay faithful and overcome. Jesus specifically mentions the crown of life. Paul wrote, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 9:25, NASB95) Jesus was reminding them that while Caesar may wear a crown it pales in comparison to the crown of life given to those that remain faithful even in the face of death.
The promise to the overcomers is simply that they will not be hurt by the second death. Jesus is referring to the final judgment and eternal separation from God. Later in Revelation, we read, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:14–15, NASB95) To the Smyrnans this meant that justice would ultimately prevail. The promise is, of course, larger than just avoiding the Lake of Fire and final judgment but shines with an eternity of life with Jesus.
Perhaps as you’ve read along you have thought about the recent martyrs. Men and women that made the choice between standing for Jesus and life itself. In many ways, the choices and consequences of the believers in Smyrna are being mirrored today in the middle-east, parts of Africa, and the far-east as militant Muslims punish or kill those refusing to say the shahada (a seven-word testimony of faith). As a side comment: while we in America think we are being persecuted when someone refuses to say Merry Christmas. Because this website reaches into areas where persecution because of faith in Christ is a real possibility let me speak to them for a moment. Jesus knows. He sees your troubles, your poverty, and your fears. Hold fast to Jesus no matter what happens. Life is more than our span on this earth. But do more than just try to survive, even when battered, bruised, and hungry you still represent the Kingdom of light to the dark and dying world around you. You may not be able to tell them but you can show them what life in Jesus is all about. You are not the first to suffer because of faith and you won’t be the last, but remember this – nothing can separate you from the love of Jesus Christ, absolutely nothing.
Even those of us who don’t face those kinds of troubles can gain something from this letter. Every day we face choices between pleasing self and following Jesus. We need to continue to learn how to die to self so that we may live for Him. Jesus words are the same to us as well, be faithful…he who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death but will receive the crown of life.