Grace For The Journey
We are continuing our study through the book of Revelation, verse-by-verse, and we find ourselves this today in chapter 2, verses 8-11. We are studying the second church of the seven churches in Asia Minor. This is the church in Smyrna. Our exalted Lord Jesus Christ has appeared to John in a vision, and He is commanding John to write down this message for the church, but not just for the church of Smyrna. This message is for every church throughout history, including the ones you and I are a part of.
As a minister of the Gospel, one truth I find necessary to stress again and again is that . . .
Becoming a Christian does not necessarily ensure
That one will always be healthy or wealthy or
Become a huge success by the set standards of society.
There are ministers who preach that. It is called the “prosperity gospel,” or the “health and wealth prosperity movement,” or by some other name. They teach that if you just trust God, He will bless you with good health and financial success. They give you the idea that if you send in your money to their ministry, often called “a seed of faith” that God will bless you in return with more money. They also teach that it is not God’s will for you to be sick. Becoming sick is a sign of lack of faith in God. When you listen to their teaching on television and you see their smiling faces and listen to them carry on you may get the idea that God wants all of His children to always have a smile on their faces and to just “be happy” and be blessed with lots of money and no problems.
Then we come to what the Bible teaches. Financial success, good health, happiness – all these things come from God, but they are not necessarily the automatic by-products of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. There are biblical principles we may follow, for example, that will keep us out of financial debt, we can avoid certain health risks by having a good diet; but to teach that it is God’s will for everyone to be wealthy, healthy, and happy – without suffering problems or persecutions – is to teach a false gospel.
Here was a church that probably would look like a failure if measured by the standards of the “health, wealth, prosperity” teachers. In fact, this church in Smyrna would probably have been considered a failure if measured the way many Christian measure churches. We tend to think that churches are only successful if they have huge budgets, building programs, and burgeoning church rolls with additions every single week. Here was a church with probably no budget at all. They were not involved in a building program and if you united with this church the likelihood of your becoming a popular and successful businessman in the city of Smyrna was nil. If anything . . .
Becoming a Christian in the city of Smyrna
Ensured you would face unending days
Of persecution, trials, tribulation, arrest,
Imprisonment, and ultimately death.
We know little of this kind of persecution in America today. The hard times we face seem pretty small when set against the backdrop of what was going on in the Smyrna church 2,000 years ago. Nevertheless, this kind of persecution could one day face every single one of us here in America and therefore we should be ready for it at all times.
But . . .
We can also learn
How to live through
Whatever difficulties and trials
We face from the principles
We read here in the text.
The church in Smyrna is commended by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is one of only two of the seven churches that contain no “bad news” from the X-ray report of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church is commended for being a “successful” church in His sight. God defines “successful” as “faithful.” He never calls us to be successful. He never calls us to be powerful. He calls us to be faithful.
This passage can teach us how to get through the hard times and that is what I want to see as we study the church in Smyrna, getting through hard times, staying faithful under fire. There are three main things to remember when you go through hard times.
Number one . . .
I. Remember The Power of our Lord.
Verse 8 says, “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life.” Remember that these words are the words of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. Look how He is identified here, “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life.” That statement stresses the powerful sovereignty of the Lord Jesus. He is sovereign. He is in control. He is in control of two things: 1) He is in control of history. We see that in the phrase, “These things says the First and the Last.” That is, Jesus Christ is before all things and He outlasts all things. He is in control all time. He is in control of history. This no doubt was an encouragement to the church in Smyrna. They were undergoing fierce persecution, and this was our Lord’s way of reminding them of His power, that nothing escaped His notice. He is in control of all the events that they will face in this world. And, 2) He is also in control of eternity. Specifically, what happens after this world, what happens after death. Jesus is identified as the One “Who was dead, and came to life.” Jesus reminds the faithful Christians in Smyrna that He does indeed “hold the keys to Hades and Death” just as He had said previously in 1:18.
Interestingly the word “Smyrna” is the Greek word for “myrrh.” Myrrh was a sweet perfume used in the days of Christ. It came from a shrubby tree whose leaves were crushed and when they were crushed they gave off this sweet perfume.
- You will remember that when the wise men from the east came to worship the newborn baby Jesus that they brought Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, perhaps a prophetic sign of His death.
- A mixture of vinegar and myrrh was offered to Jesus on the cross.
- Myrrh was also used in the embalming of dead bodies. We read in the Gospel of John that when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped the body of Jesus they used myrrh in His burial.
- Myrrh had a connection with the suffering and tribulation of Jesus and now this church is going through similar suffering and tribulation and it is in this context that Jesus reminds them of His power, His power over history, and his power over eternity.
We must remember this today. Whatever afflictions we face as Christians, whatever persecutions, whatever difficulties we encounter, we must remember the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the first and the last, who was dead and came to life. He is in complete sovereign control of our lives, exerting power over history and eternity. When you go through hard times remember the power of our Lord.
Secondly, when you go through hard times . . .
II. Remember The Peace Of Our Lord.
When you go through hard times, the Lord Jesus Christ offers His peace. Look at verse 9, where Jesus says, “I know your works.” That is, “I know the hard times you’re going through.” What a great reality! Jesus sees us in our trials. He knows what we are going through. There are three kinds of trials these Smyrna Christians were going through. They are identified in verse three as “tribulation, poverty, and blasphemy.”
“Tribulation” is a picturesque word describing the pressure of a thing bearing down upon another. We often describe our afflictions this way, we talk of pressure, of things “coming down on us,” and so forth. Jesus knows what we’re going through. He sees us.
Then he says in verse 9, I know your “poverty.” We spoke earlier of the “Prosperity Movement.” How many folks do you think I could get to sign up if I started a “Poverty Movement?” Truth is, some Christians do not have much money, much stuff. Poverty does not make one less spiritual any more than riches make a person more spiritual. Money is no indicator of spiritual maturity.
The church in Smyrna did not have much material blessing. They were poor. And their poverty must have looked pretty funny to the average citizen of Smyrna. Smyrna was a very prosperous and proud city. Like Ephesus, Smyrna was a harbor city with a thriving export business. Its coins were inscribed with the words, “First in Asia.” They were first in beauty and first in size. Smyrna was a prosperous, growing city. That may be why the city continues to thrive even 2,000 years later. The city is still with us today, known today as the city of Izmir in modern Turkey.
The city of Smyrna was rich, but the church of Smyrna was poor. They had no big budget, padded pews, beautiful organ, piano, heating, or air conditioning. They had none of those things. Persecution has a way of stripping away the non-essentials and making us more grateful for what it means to know the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, the church in Smyrna was poor. Jesus says “I know your poverty.” But then, did you notice what the Lord Jesus added right after that? Did you notice the small parenthetical statement that follows? He adds, “But you are rich.” Yes, poor by the world’s standards, rich by the Lord’s standards. Poor in the sight of man, rich in the sight of the Master. Poor with respect to material things, rich with respect to spiritual things. You are rich. It is the Greek word “plutocrat,” which means “a wealthy person.” Christian, regardless of your money and material goods, you are rich. You know the Lord Jesus Christ and you have eternal rewards awaiting you in the next life. You are rich. Do no’t you forget it.
But Jesus does not stop at their experience of tribulation and poverty. He goes on to say, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The “blasphemy” Jesus is talking about are the slanderous words that some of the Jews in Smyrna were saying about them. These Jews in Smyrna did not share the church’s Christian beliefs and they were blaspheming God by spreading slanderous things about the Christians, attacking their character, and so forth.
These people doing the slandering are identified as “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” That is, these are people who “say” they follow the One True God, but actually they are the devil’s crowd. The same can be said of many today who profess to be Christians. There are some today who “say” they are Christians but are not. 1 John 2:4 states, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Our merely saying a thing does not make it true. It is what we believe and how we live that determines whether it is true.
When you go through hard times, remember the peace of our Lord. He sees us in our trials and He strengthens us in our trials. This strengthening is underscored by what Jesus says in verse 10, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.” Jesus says, “Do not fear.” That is, be encouraged, be strengthened in the midst of your afflictions. Stop being afraid. Do not worry or fret. Jesus sees us in our struggles, He strengthens us in our trials, and He sustains us through those times.
Here again we see that we can anticipate suffering as a Christian. Suffering is not necessarily the result of our failure to follow Christ faithfully. This church is following Christ faithfully and yet, they are suffering. Jesus says they are not to fear any of those things “which you are about to suffer.” There is more suffering and persecution coming. But specifically, says Jesus, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison.” Jesus allows that. Remember, He is in control. He sees what is happening. They will be thrown into prison and have tribulation for a period of ten days. The 10 days is probably a way of indicating that the time period of this church’s terrible persecution will be brief. There will be a definite limit to it. The Christians in the Smyrna church will suffer an intense time of persecution that will not last a long time, but a brief time, something on the order of ten days rather than ten thousand days. In and through it all, they will experience the peace and presence of our Lord. He sees us in our trials and He strengthens us in our trials.
What is the purpose of this tribulation that the Lord Jesus Christ permits? Jesus allows the devil to work through people that the Smyrna Christians would go through some really tough times. For what purpose? Did you notice it there in verse 10? Jesus says this is going to happen to you, “that you may be tested.” The word “tested” refers to a “refining” process. As a precious metal is refined, it is made stronger and purer through fire; so the Christian is made stronger through the refining fire of persecution. That is why we are drawn to those Christians who have really been through hard times but have remained faithful and true to the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that is the key to it all. Jesus says in the latter part of verse 10, “Be faithful until death.” When you go through hard times, be faithful. Stick with it. Persevere.
Remember the power of our Lord, remember the peace of our Lord.
Thirdly . . .
III. Remember The Promises Of Our Lord.
Do not miss what our Lord is saying in verses 10b-11, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Jesus gives them two promises in these verses: (1) The Lord rewards our suffering in the end. He says, “You be faithful until death,” that is, “stick with it, keep on keepin’ on, and I will reward your suffering in the end. I will give you the crown of life.” The crown of life is a symbol of the Christian’s rewards in the afterlife for his faithfulness in this life. The Bible says in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” Jesus says in Matthew 6:19, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures in this life . . . but treasures in heaven.” You be faithful, Christian, and one day you will receive your eternal rewards in heaven.
God blesses us there
Our faithfulness here.
Think how grateful you will be for having been faithful under fire, for sticking with the stuff, for continuing to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember the promise of our Lord.
(2) Our preserves our soul in the end. Verse 11 says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” The second death refers to what the unbeliever faces in Revelation, chapter 20. There we read that the unbeliever, the non-Christian, will die not once, but twice. Because his sins are unforgiven in Christ, his name is not written in the Book of Life and his soul will be cast into the burning lake of fire. That is the second death. See if we die before the Lord Jesus Christ comes again, we all will face the first death. Every one of us will face the first death. But not every one of us will face the second death. Those of us who have trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will only die once, because we have been born twice. That is what Jesus meant when He said to Nicodemus in John, chapter 3, “You must be born again.” You must be born twice. As someone has well said, “If you are born twice, you just die once. But if you are just born once, you will die twice.” Your soul will face the second death in the end. You will be cast into a burning lake of fire that burns and burns for eternity. Jesus says to you and me, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” – the word there is in the plural, churches – “He who overcomes,” that is, He who truly believes in Christ Jesus, “shall not be hurt by the second death.”
If I did not know Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, if I were not saved, I would be sure and get saved as soon as possible before I did anything else! Adrian Rogers said, “It’d be a wonderful thing if in America we had people who feared the second death as much as they feared the first death.” There is nothing more important. I thank God that I need not fear death, because I know I am dying just one time. Jesus Christ is preserving my soul in the end. I will not be hurt by the second death, not because of my goodness, but because of Christ’s goodness on my behalf. I am not saved by living a good life. I am saved by living for the One who was good for me. We are saved by grace through faith. Not of works.
There are no promises of the “easy life” in Scripture. Becoming a Christian is no guarantee that we will never suffer persecution, hard times, or difficulties. Leaonard Ravenhill said, “When God opens the windows of heaven to bless you, the devil will open the doors of hell to blast you.” What we do know, however, is that when the devil opens the doors of hell to blast the Christian, our Lord is with us. Remember the power of our Lord, the peace of our Lord, and the promise of our Lord.
Many of these Smyrna Christians died for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. During these days, all people during the Roman Empire were forced to say, “Caesar is Lord.” That is what they had to profess publicly at least one day of the year in a very ritualistic way. They were to say, “Caesar is Lord.” If they refused, they were arrested and forced to utter those words or else face a terrible death.
From the second century comes a writing entitled, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” It is the oldest account of a Christian dying for Jesus outside of the New Testament. Polycarp was a disciple of John. Polycarp was one of the first pastors of the church in Smyrna. This account, this writing of “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” is, no doubt, a bit embellished due to the love of the early followers of Christ and their love for this great man who died as an elderly man, a man in his late 80s, he died as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. I want to read this account of his death which occurred in AD 155 when the Roman authorities came to arrest him.
“Now the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard the news, was not disturbed. In fact, he wanted to remain in town, but the majority persuaded him to withdraw. So he withdrew to a farm not far distant from the city. And as those who were searching for him persisted, he moved to another farm. Mounted police and horsemen, closing in on him late in the evening, found him in bed in an upstairs room in a small cottage; and though he still could have escaped from there to another place, he refused, saying, ‘May God’s will be done.’ After transferring him to their carriage and sitting down at his side, they tried to persuade him, saying, ‘Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense’ (and other words to this effect) ‘and thereby saving yourself?’ Now at first he gave them no answer. But when they persisted, he said, ‘I am not about to do what you are suggesting to me.’ He was led to the stadium. There was such a tumult in the stadium that no one could even be heard. But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.’ And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. The proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, ‘Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say. When the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ So the proconsul said: ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.’ But he said: ‘Call for them!” Then he said to him again: ‘I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.’”
The proconsul was astonished, and sent his own herald into the midst of the stadium to proclaim three times: ‘Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.’ When this was proclaimed by the herald, the entire crowd, Gentiles as well as Jews living in Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable anger and with a loud shout: ‘This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice or worship.’ The crowd swiftly collected wood and kindling from the workshops and baths, the Jews being especially eager to assist in this, as is their custom. Then the materials prepared for the pyre were placed around him; and as they were also about to nail him, he said: ‘Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails.’ So they did not nail him, but tied him instead. Then he, having placed his hands behind him and having been bound, looked up to heaven and said: ‘O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, the God of angels and powers and of all creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your presence, I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour, that I might receive a place among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them in your presence today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you have prepared and revealed beforehand, and have now accomplished, you who are the undeceiving and true God. For this reason, indeed for all things, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom to you with him and the Holy Spirit be glory both now and for the ages to come. Amen.’ When he had offered up the ‘Amen’ and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire.”
Some accounts say that when the flames burned the body of Polycarp, that you could hear him singing praises to the Lord God. Polycarp was a man who was literally faithful under fire.
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!