Revelation 2:8-11 Sermon – The Church Of Smyrna (The Persecuted Church)
Revelation 2:8-11 – “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that 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 throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto 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. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
Background On The 7 Letters To The Churches
- Literal churches. Literal letters. From Jesus.
- Containing instruction, warning, rebuke, critique, encouragement, commendation.
- These are literal churches which existed in that period in history. But the issues (good and bad) present in those churches, exist throughout the church age. Solomon once said that there was nothing new under the sun. As a whole, the 7 letters can be taken to represent the message of Jesus to the whole church. The number 7 indicates completeness. So although these are written to specific, real churches, the lessons and principles within are timeless and universal. As we read study these letters, we must realize that Jesus is writing to us as well as members of His church. We must consider how they apply to us and our situation. Some local churches may tend to be more like Ephesus, which lost it’s first love. Or some may tend to be more like Laodicea, which was lukewarm. The same is true for individuals. So as we continue to go through these letters, let us meditate on them. Treat them as if you received a personal letter hand-written by Jesus.
Background On The Church of Smyrna
- Smyrna means “Myrrh.”
- Ancient Smyrna is located in modern-day Izmir, Turkey.
- A Roman city, idol worship, pagan temples, a temple to Roman emperor, emperor worship.
Only emperor worship was allowed; all other religions were banned.
- Judaism was exempt.
- An active Jewish population who were hostile to the church.
- The largely Gentile church was considered a threat to the Jews and to the Romans.
- Smyrna is one of only two letters Jesus wrote which contain no rebuke or criticisms at all. The primary purpose of this letter was to encourage the people as they faced persecution.
I. Jesus’ Resurrection Gives Us Hope. (8)
Revelation 2:8 – “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
Each of the letters to the churches is directly from Jesus and includes a piece of the description about Jesus from Revelation 1. For example, the letter to Ephesus includes a description of Jesus a holding the seven stars and the seven gold lampstands. And the letter to Pergamum includes a description of Jesus having the sharp, double-edged sword.
In this letter to Smyrna, the description of Jesus as the First and the Last, the one who died and came to life is repeated. You might expect that the descriptions are repeated in order, but they are not. The letter to Ephesus mentions Jesus as carrying the sevens stars and lampstands, but that is at the very end of the description in Revelation 1.
That means that each description about Jesus was repeated to a specific church. That phrase was chosen specifically to encourage and strengthen the people in that church with one aspect of Jesus’ character.
So Jesus wanted to remind the church of Smyrna that He is the First and the Last, the one who died and came to life.
That knowledge would give them courage to face the persecutions in front of them.
- Jesus is the First – He established the church. They are built on Jesus, the cornerstone. He is their foundation. That knowledge could give them confidence and courage when times of testing would come.
- Jesus is the Last – Jesus is the judge. One day each person would face Him and be held accountable. That applies to the saints of Smyrna. The worldly leaders who wanted to persecute them were not their authority or their judge. They would not have the last say. Jesus would have the last say. He holds their eternal destiny safely in His hands. Even if they finally had to give their lives for the gospel, that is not the end. After that, they would meet Jesus. And He would welcome them. On the other hand, their enemies who persecuted them would also meet Jesus. And they would be judged for their very acts of persecution against the church.
- Jesus is the one who died and came to life – Jesus had already been killed by the enemies of God. That is what they were potentially facing. He was killed. But he conquered death. He overcame it. Death was not the end. Neither did death signify His defeat. But the death was swallowed up in victory. His death was a step in the path to His greatest victory, which is resurrection.
- That fact should encourage the believer who faces persecution. If this world is all there is, then persecution would be crushing. Think about how difficult it would be to face continual pain and suffering if this is all there is. And for what?
1 Corinthians 15:19 – If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. … Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
If Jesus did not rise again from the dead, then neither will we. Our faith would useless and we “are to be pitied more than all men.” How pointless it would be to be persecuted for a dead cause.
That word is always so important in the Bible. Christ has been raised. And that fact gives hope to the persecuted. There is more than what we see and feel in this life. Jesus’ resurrection proved that one day His followers will also be resurrected to eternal life.
That is the hope persecuted saints must cling to. That is the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel. That is what makes the suffering worth it. That is what makes denying Christ in that situation the worst decision one could make and confessing Christ to the end the best possible one.
Application: When you are persecuted, remember this. Jesus overcame. He was raised again. And if you persevere to the end, you will be too. The worst possible afflictions in this life are not worthy to be compared to the eternal weight of glory which God bestows on His people. Cling to that hope. Set that hope ever before you. Focus on that light, that promise, and not on the difficulties. Though the persecutions may seem long and hard, our life now is but a mist when compared with eternity.
II. Do Not Fear Persecution (9-10a)
A. I know your tribulation and poverty
In 2:1 it says that Jesus walks among the lampstands, which are the churches. He knows firsthand of the difficulties facing the church. This statement “I know” is meant to be an encouragement to all the saints at Smyrna who were facing persecution and indeed all believers who ever face persecution.
When a believer faces losing a job, imprisonment, torture, or death, he might begin to doubt Christ. He might wonder “where is Jesus?” “Does He see?” “Does He care?” And Jesus comforts with these words, “I know.” He hears the prayers of His people.
And no matter what we face, we should take comfort in the fact that He is watching. He is with us. His love sustains us.
Romans 8:35 – Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
Nothing can separate us from His love.
And yet, though He knows, He does not always deliver out of persecution. In the New Testament, believers are continually reminded that persecution is to be expected.
1 John 3:13 – Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.
And we must not think, “It is not fair. He is watching and we are down here suffering.” Jesus Himself faced far worse than we ever will. We are only hated because the world hated Him first (John 15:18). So when Jesus says that He knows, it is not just an intellectual knowledge. He has been there. He knows through experience.
The church at Smyrna faced intense persecution. The earliest record we have of martyrdom outside of the New Testament is at Smyrna. The bishop of the church of Smyrna was Polycarp, one of the early church fathers and a disciple and friend of John. He was 86 years old and dragged from his home. The proconsul tried to force him to deny Christ. He said, “Swear. Reproach Christ, and I will set you free.”
Polycarp replied, “And he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
The proconsul did not give up.
“I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.” “Call them,” Polycarp replied. “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.” “If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.” “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
The crowds then gathered wood for the fire. Polycarp took off his robe and walked onto it. The soldiers grabbed nails to nail him, but Polcarp told them “he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.”
Before the fire was started Polycarp prayed, “I bless you for considering me worthy of this day and hour—of sharing with the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, so as to share in resurrection to everlasting life of soul and body in the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them into your presence today as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.
For this and for everything I praise and glorify you through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Child. Through him and with him, may you be glorified with the Holy Spirit, both now and forever. Amen.”
When the fire was set, eye-witnesses say that it formed an arch like a sail around his body and his flesh wasn’t consumed. The soldiers seeing this then stabbed him with a sword and he died at 86 years old because he refused to worship Caesar.
Polycarp was one of many who would face persecution in Smyrna.
Smyrna was only 35 miles from Ephesus and also near geographically to the other 5 churches. But the church at Smyrna seemed to suffer worse. Why? We don’t the answer. Some believers in some regions face more persecution than others. It is not for us to know why one believer faces persecution and another escapes it. It is for us to believe that Jesus knows, and that He has a reason for allowing it.
Persecution varies throughout the world and at different times. Someone might think based on their own experience that persecution is a thing of the past. But it is still very much going on today.
- Almost 400 Christians are killed for their faith every month. 13 every day. LIkely under-reported. (Open Doors).
- 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed every month (Open Doors).
- 772 forms of violence (beatings, kidnappings, rape, arrest, etc.) are committed against Christians every month (Open Doors).
- Around 40-80 million Christians have been martyred in the course of history. More than half were martyred in the 20th century (Gordon-Conwell Resources).
The above stats are from opendoors.org.
These are not just statistics. They are real people who are suffering. In India persecution is common. In 2015 a pastor named Chama Hassa Purty from Sandih village in Jharkhand had just returned home from praying for a sick child. Eight armed men forced their way into his house, and shot him multiple times in front of his family. Years later the gang returned again and ranted that there were still prayer meetings in this house. This time they shot one of his daughters, who was critically injured.
In Nigeria Islamic State of West Africa Province members regularly capture and execute believers. In North Korea, teachers ask their students to go home and play “Hide-and-seek” to find a Bible. If they can find one, the parents are then taken and imprisoned.
And many believers around the world, face heightened risk from war, worse jobs, or fewer opportunities because of their faith. They face not only direct persecution, but also poverty.
Jesus knows. And He says, “but you are rich.” Rich in spirit. This is not a promise for material wealth. It is a reminder of the truth that believers are spiritually rich even when they live in poverty. Those riches included salvation, eternal life, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God’s favor, and a deep joy and peace that pass all comprehension.
Believers would not only face persecution from the government, but also from others who claimed to belong to God. These were Jews by birth, but they rejected Christ. John calls them a synagogue of Satan. Jews who converted to Christianity would have been big targets for them.
So persecution is not only something from outside. It can come from people who claim to belong to God. Many strong believers who helped spark the reformation were martyred by the so-called church leaders of their day, people like William Tyndale, whose crime was translating the Bible into English.
Slander and persecution from within can hurt much worse.
Do not fear
So Jesus knows the persecution the church would face. And He is writing them a personal letter to encourage them. If you want to know what would Jesus say to you when you are persecuted, here is the answer.
He says, “Do not fear.”
He doesn’t say, “Do not fear. I will deliver you from the persecution.” He says, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” They were going to suffer. The devil was going to throw them into prison. They were going to be tested. They were going to have tribulation. He says, “be faithful unto death.” That means that some would even die.
From this we learn an important principle: God does not promise to deliver His saints out of persecution every time. We know that sometimes He does this. He saved Daniel from the lion’s den. He saved Daniel’s friends from the blazing furnace. But he did not deliver Joseph from his brother’s hands. He did not save Stephen who was stoned to death. Again, we don’t know why God allows some to be persecuted and supernaturally delivers others. But we know He has a plan.
And Jesus speaks to His church words of exhortation. When you face suffering, when you face death do not fear. Then He says, “Be faithful unto death.”
PPT of Counsel Slide
Do not fear and be faithful.
How can a person stare torture in the face and not fear? How does a person remain faithful?
Jesus then gives two promises which encourage believers to faithfully and boldly stand firm in the face of suffering.
III. The Faithful Will Be Rewarded (10b-11)
A. I will give to you the crown of life
The same crown of life is referenced in James 1:12. And there it is also given to the one who perseveres in the face of trials.
James 1:12 – Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
So what is this crown of life? Do believers become royalty and get crown like kings when we go to heaven?
In today’s world, we immediately equate crowns with what kings and queens wear. They are normally golden and have sparkling jewels.
But the word used here is “stefanos.” It can mean a “laurel wreath” or “reward.” In that time the winner of the Olympics would be awarded a “stefanos.”. It denotes public honor and recognition for finishing a task well, for winning.
In a similar manner, this crown of life appears to be a recognition or reward which Jesus gives to believers who persevere in the face of persecution. The crown of life is one of 4 crowns mentioned in the Bible which Jesus will give to believers who do well. The others include the crown of winning souls, the crown of righteousness (for those who look forward to the second coming), and the crown of glory (for leaders who shepherd well).
There is some debate about whether these crowns are actual crowns or figurative for some praise or other reward Jesus gives. I tend to think they are actual crowns based on Revelation 4:10.
Revelation 4:10 – The twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne.
In this verse the crowns appear to be literal. That would indicate that after Jesus gives His saints the crowns, they in turn cast them at His feet in gratitude for His work and to give Him all glory.
Revelation 4:11 – “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”
Regardless of if it is a real crown or not, the encouragement is the same. The one who is faithful will face Jesus. He Himself will accept and reward the one who suffers for His name. Jesus is not blind to the sufferings His saints face. He knows. And He rewards the one who is faithful.
B. The who conquers (overcomes) will not be hurt by the second death
The second encouragement Jesus gives to the persecuted is at the very end of the letter. Jesus ends each letter with a promise for the one who overcomes. What is our theme this year? It is overcoming through Christ.
And here Jesus Himself tells us the reward given to you if you overcome. And His promise is this: “the one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.”
The second death is hell.
Jesus promises that the one who is faithful to the end will not be touched by hell. Jesus does not always deliver us out of momentary tribulations. But He does deliver us from hell, by paying the price in our place.
Matthew 10:28 – And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
When you face persecution, you have a choice. Please God or man. If you please man and deny Jesus, then He will deny you. You might avoid some trouble in this world. But you will have far greater trouble at the coming judgment. If you choose to please God, then you may suffer. It may come to the point where you face torture or death. But if you keep the faith, then He will welcome you and reward you.
I was watching a movie about Richard Wurmbrand. He is the founder of Voice for the Martyrs. Richard was a pastor in Romania when it was occupied by the Soviet Union. But he kept preaching at his church. And he refused to sanction the state run church. He was imprisoned and tortured for his faith for 14 years.
Day after day he was mistreated by his guards. On one occasion, they opened the door to his cell and found him praying. “What are you praying for? Your God has deserted you,” the guard said. “I am praying for you,” Richard replied. He was faithful unto death.
There are countless stories like Richard Wurmbrand of believers who were supernaturally empowered to overcome horrors. Some were able to sing while burning alive. Some were able to share with their captors who tormented them. Some were able to pray, “father forgive them” like Stephen and Jesus before them.
Brothers and sisters, most of us don’t face a lot of persecution. Perhaps you face an unkind remark from a co-worker. Maybe your family members are hostile to your faith. But you probably have not been thrown in prison or tortured. And so far none of us here have been martyred.
But Jesus said that “he who is faithful in a little thing is faithful also in much.”
Don’t be complacent. The world is running fast away from God. Persecution is increasing in many places. It may very well be in our lives or our children’s lives that these serious persecutions will become a reality. So now is the time to prepare. Now is the time to be faithful. If you are swayed by the hostile remarks of a family member now, then how can you hope to stand when the persecution increases?
We would not be able to stand by ourselves. The only hope is through Christ. And that means we need to draw close to Christ now. We need to depend on Him day by day, being faithful in the little things each day. We need to come to Him when we face so called “small” temptations so that when they grow more serious we already have this lifestyle.
Where you face major persecution or just a bit in the form of pressure from family or hostility you can overcome it through Christ. He conquered it and He will help you to conquer it as well. The key is that you must depend on Him. Come to Him now. Ask Him for strength to be faithful. And if you are faithful in the midst of the persecution, He will give you the crown of life.