What words would you like to see engraved on your tombstone?
- Loving husband and father?
- Wife and mother loved by everyone who knew her?
- Faithful until death?
All three are solid answers, and there are many more possibilities that would be beautiful to be remembered by. But when it comes to me, i would have to pick the third option. Not only does it contain the first within it, but it also declares something even more. It is a quote from Revelation 2:10, and if it ended up on my tombstone, it would state that i never turned my back on my Christian profession.
We are now within the first main section of Revelation. The letters to the churches. While all seven letters are addressed to literal, first-century churches, we must not miss that there are seven of them. It was said above that Jesus walks amongst the seven churches. Jesus did not only walk among these seven churches. Instead, He walks amongst THE church. These seven churches represent the seven primary places in which the church as a whole, or any given local church, might find itself during its history.
With that, we turn to Revelation 2:8-11.
Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have affliction for 10 days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.”
The Author and the Addressee
Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says:
The church at Smyrna is unknown apart from what we read in these four verses. However, there are some details we know from excavations of the city and knowledge of Greek history. For instance, Smyrna is thought to be the birthplace of Homer, the author of the Illiad and Odyssey. Smyrna lay destroyed for almost 300 years before Lysimachus rebuilt it in 290 BC, and some ancient writers compared it to the phoenix, the fabled bird capable of regenerating itself after death. Smyrna was very dedicated to worship of the Roman emperor, and it was even given the honor of erecting a temple to him during Tiberius’ reign (Tiberius was emperor when Jesus walked the earth [cf. Luke 3:1]).
(See: Paige Patterson, New American Commentary – Volume 39: Revelation, [Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2012], WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 92, and Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – Revelation, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2009], WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 67.)
Jesus describes Himself in incredibly deistic language here. Not only does it flow directly out of Revelation 1:17-18—His comforting words to John after His brilliant appearance—but statements of “First and the Last” refer to God’s declarations to Israel in the book of Isaiah (see 41:4; 44:6; 48:12). The second occurrence in Isaiah comes immediately before a scathing review of idolatry/false worship. By Jesus referring to Himself in this way, He is doing two things that will be expanded on throughout this post: 1) encouraging them to hold onto their belief in Him despite the hostile society, and 2) reminding them of His power over death.
I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have affliction for 10 days. Be faithful until death.
The irony in the first line here is rich. If Jesus were writing to the emperor-worshipping masses of Smyrna, He would have said, “I know your ease and your riches, yet you are bankrupt.” Instead, He writes to the Christians, and He tells them they are rich despite their suffering.
Jesus starts His message by saying, “I know your affliction and poverty.” He knows it. A more literal translation would read, “I have perceived” the hardships they were facing. While every one of the letters begins with Christ saying, “I have perceived,” i firmly believe this one is best understood as Christ almost saying, “I know it from My own experience.” What was Jesus’ earthly life except for affliction and poverty?
He had every opportunity and temptation to turn away from the trials, but instead, He entrusted Himself to God in times of temptation and fulfilled His mission perfectly. This is the Jesus we worship. He knows our trials. He identifies with us. He understands us when we pray for help in times of suffering or temptation. We must look to Him in these times.
Next, Jesus uses the same word to say He understands the slander of those claiming to be Jews, but are actually a synagogue of Satan. What does this mean? Allow Matthew Henry’s commentary to explain:
As Christ has a church in the world, the spiritual Israel of God, so the devil has his synagogue. Those assemblies which are set up in opposition to the truths of the gospel, and which promote and propagate damnable errors,-those which are set up in opposition to the purity and spirituality of gospel worship, and which promote and propagate the vain inventions of men and rites and ceremonies which never entered into the thoughts of God,-these are all synagogues of Satan: he presides over them, he works in them, his interests are served by them, and he receives a horrid homage and honour from them.
(Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 1126.)
A few more words: Anyone who is a believer in Jesus is a descendant of Abraham–a spiritual Jew (cf. Galatians 3:16). Therefore, if someone pretends to be a Christian, but Jesus knows their hearts, and if their actions evidence slander towards Christ’s people, then they prove themselves to be false believers, still under Satan’s influence. Therefore, whether it is a false religion or blatant paganism, anyone who is not a spiritual Jew is a child of Satan. All idolatry–at its root–is Satan worship (thus: “synagogue of Satan”).
Jesus commands the church to not be afraid of what they are about to suffer. This is huge. He tells them that they are going to suffer. We–especially in America–are much too quick to gloss over this fact. Christianity is a religion of suffering. Jesus suffered; we aren’t better than our Master; therefore, we will suffer.
But, He tells them not to be afraid! This is a considerable comfort. Especially when we keep reading, and see that some of them will go to jail, suffer for ten days, and potentially die. One commentator explains,
With some merit Hemer has argued, based on inscriptions and ancient literature, that the “ten days” was a period in which those who were to be sent forth in gladiatorial combat were imprisoned. If Hemer’s interpretation is right, then it is conceivable that Christians in Smyrna were actually being forced to enter gladiatorial combat or, at least, to be the targets of such combat. Prior to their appearance in the arena, they experienced a ten-day incarceration followed by almost certain death.
(Paige Patterson, New American Commentary – Volume 39: Revelation, [Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2012], WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 98, emphasis added.)
In America, we have not started experiencing this kind of persecution yet. It might be around the corner. In other nations, it is experienced daily.
To you in a nation where Christianity is illegal: Don’t be afraid, Christ will keep you.
To us in America: why do we fear to speak the gospel?
We have no reason to fear. Jesus says, “Do not fear!”
Even if your suffering leads to martyrdom and death, Jesus says, “Do not fear!” For many of the Smyrnans, it did lead to death.
. . . and I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.
Jesus has explained that He understands their situation. He knows the temptation to bail on suffering. But He tells them to not fear.
And then He promises the crown of life to those who die. Irony again. He says that the person who is victorious in the face of suffering and martyrdom (the one who is martyred) will never be harmed by the second death. What a promise!
Jesus doesn’t lie. He doesn’t say, “You won’t die!” He is very clear that many of His followers throughout time will die for Him. But for those who do, Jesus promises them immunity from the second death.
You see, the statement YOLO is false. You don’t only live once. YALT. You actually live twice. The question is: Will your second life be short, or will it be eternal? Everyone who has ever died will be resurrected to life at the end of history, and those who trusted Christ as their Savior will enjoy eternal life; those who did not, will die eternally a second time in hell (cf. Revelation 20:14).
I beg you to believe in Christ today! The Christian life is not easy, but it is worth it. It is worth every self-sacrificing minute of it. I don’t want to see you dying eternally on Judgment Day! Give Him your life today!
And if you’re already a Christ follower, keep following Him! Shed anything preventing you from remaining faithful to Him! Surround yourself with faithful followers of Jesus who will help spur you on to follow Him more closely.
Just like the mythical phoenix doesn’t stay dead, neither do believers. So, when the world threatens us with death—like it did to the Smyrnan church—we need not fear, because we will be resurrected to eternal life. Christ tells us “Don’t fear,” and because He says this, we can be “faithful until death.”
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.
The next entry can be found here.