The letter Jesus directed to the pastor at Ephesus included both a command and a threat. While they maintained their doctrine and good deeds they had forsaken their first love. Love as the motivation behind their lives, their choices, the doctrine of God was missing, gone. To correct that they were to repent and return to their first love, that is, Godly benevolence/charity1 as their motivation. If they did not Jesus said he would come and remove their church. Well, today the Ephesian church does not exist.
The Ephesian church is not the focus of this lesson, but is a useful contrast to the church at Smyrna. The church in Smyrna is the only one of the Revelation seven to remain to this day. Another contrast is that of material things. The Ephesian church was wealthy and large, but the church at Smyrna was one in poverty. This is also a rare church where Jesus identifies no sin for correction. The Ephesian church was a doer of deeds. The church in Smyrna was a church suffering from the deeds of others. Jesus, mainly identifies with them and gives them a promise for the future.
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. 9 “‘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. 10 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. 11 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.’ (Revelation 2:8-11–ESV)
The pastor of Smyrna is the addressee after the form of these letters. From there Jesus quickly moves on to one of his own attributes. As with the Ephesian church Jesus picks out one of his own attributes. Jesus describes himself as one who had died, but now lived. He had been victorious over death and with the triumph is now a living Savior.
For some people there are few expectations of comfort in this world. In fact, some people seem more burdened and hurt by this world than comforted in it. The final, the ultimate hurt of the earth is death. Jesus said that he had died. The Savior of the world was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. This death, the earthly one, is the first death. The second death is a different subject that Jesus comes back to in verse 11.
So, the headboard of the life of suffering in Smyrna was the living Savior. Jesus had felt the hurt of earth and had overcome it. Now he was telling John to write these things. Jesus was no longer dead, and of course, those in Smyrna knew this, believed this. They knew of his crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. They had placed their faith in him. It is no trouble for God to remind us of things, and we are safeguarded by those reminders. So, Jesus, in his opening statement to the church in Smyrna references these ultimate things. He references his ultimate earth suffering, but concludes that dark thing with the permanent, ultimate thing: life.
What do you do with suffering?
The Christian should remember the way Jesus describes himself here. Jesus suffered to the point of death, but was raised to life. Do we know this? Yes, but I think it is easy to so know it that we forget its power for our lives. We may be prone to think of death and resurrection in the Easter context. It may be left as a transaction for our sins rather than remembered as a transaction for our lives.
Sometimes when we comfort others in their suffering we do so from having been there. Our comfort does not take away their experience, but it is offered as a strength. We came through it and they can too. Jesus came through it and we would do well to remember this. By taking it to heart we honor him and will find help for our own tough times. That is the reason that Jesus puts this here at the beginning of this lesson on persevering. “Remember the Alamo!” shouted the Texans as they attacked Santa Anna. Well, we should shout “Remember our Savior!” against the Santa Anna’s of suffering. There will be victory over fear.
9 “‘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.
Trouble and poverty
Jesus immediately moved on from his own experience to the Smyrnan’s2. Those in Smyrna faced tribulation and Jesus said he knew it. This should not come as a surprise for Jesus himself said that God the Father knows when a sparrow falls. The Smyrnan people were of far greater worth than sparrows, so God knew their tribulation. God knows your tribulation and mine as well.
The Smyrnan’s were also very poor. This, too, was a thing Jesus said he knew. Note that their poverty was not merely visible to God he was aware of it. Jesus saw their poverty, and took note of it. He adds a comment to this facet interjecting that in reality they were rich. Jesus sees people differently and Jesus sees circumstances differently. The shape of circumstances on the earth may be far different than eternal things.
Let’s comment upon tribulation and poverty. Jesus does not give them an explanation or rationale, but just acknowledges it. Appended closely to the words of verse 8 it is clear that Jesus had “been there, done that.”
Some years ago anxiety smashed into my world. I hated it and did not understand it. That inner turmoil is rather gone now and almost never bites3. That experience enables me to comfort others. They still personally experience it and must master it, but there is some comfort to them in sharing their experience.
There are few things more disconcerting than being the target of lies. To have others speak ill of you with an intent to harm your reputation is a heavy burden. Physical and financial burdens were not the only antagonists in Smyrna. Lies were smearing the reputation of this church. The one’s spreading the lies were those of a religious organization and one with earthly ties to the Jewish nation. It is hard enough to escape poverty and trouble with a good reputation, and all the harder if one has well-positioned enemies.
The Jews of Smyrna were not idle, but rose up against the initiative of Jesus Christ. The church in Smyrna felt the brunt of their attacks, and it would have hurt.
Jesus indicated his awareness of both the slander and its source, and while Jesus did not delve into the sources of trouble and poverty he did slander.
Before we look at the source let us consider the sin. Slander is a verbal tool of destruction, malevolence, for the harm of others. It is in no manner attuned to the character of God. God is benevolent, charitable, interested in the final excellence of all men. Slander is really an opposite thing to God. It is evil being devoid of charity or interest in the others. It seeks to harm, tear down, destroy.
Jesus tells the people of Smyrna that he knows the slander levied against their reputation.
Where is your reputation most important?
The most important venue for a good reputation is the one in heaven. What God thinks of us as individuals is more important than absolutely everything else. The people of Smyrna did not rise or fall before the synagogue or the Roman authorities. In the big scheme of things they rose/fell before the King of kings, and Jesus was saying good things of them.
All wasn’t good in the synagogue of Smyrna
The thing that I fear most is forever in hell. Would it not be the biggest fail to find out upon death that the root of your life was wrong? When I read a passage like this where Jesus says that people who claim to be Jews are not Jews at all I don’t cheer. Rather I fear for them. All the energy with which they strain is error.
What happens when they die? Do they wake, see Jesus, and think, “Are you serious? You are God? I made a mistake?” and then repent? As I type this I don’t find myself imagining that as their response. A lifetime of built up antagonism against Jesus does not evaporate when one finds that he is in charge. I think that those Jews who have hated Christ for their entire existence would choose hell over submission to Jesus as Messiah and Lord. It does not seem they would just say, “Oops. I lived the wrong way, now that I see it I will submit.” They might want heaven and fear hell, but acceptance of Jesus as the lamb of God will seem to be impossible. This is a false choice anyway for the choice must be made before one dies.
It seems that one who is genuinely interested in truth will find it. I think, hope at least, that deceit would not win.
10 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.
Jesus tells them their future
The future in Smyrna was going to be suffering, jail, testing and tribulation. The source of slander was the synagogue of Satan and the source of tribulation is similar: the devil. The devil tempts so as to make people fall and that was his motive here as well. He had lost the fight against Jesus who was now back in heaven, but he will spend his energy in the same vein. Satan will hurt the followers of Jesus as much as possible. He will cause them to fall if at all possible.
Do not fear and be faithful
Jesus gives a command to the Smyrnans: do not fear. That Jesus commands them not to be filled terror, alarmed, fear coming suffering implies that freedom from these is an option.
He gives a second command: be faithful. Paul reports some things along these lines at the end of Philippians 1. He says that standing firm, contending for the faith of God’s good news and not being frightened by opposition are hallmarks of the suffering Christian.
The unafraid Christian stands so firmly that it becomes a sign to those who test. Recall the paragraph above where I found myself concerned that Jews who persecuted Christians would arrive in heaven and be startled over Jesus as Messiah? Here is a bit more of the answer to that. The response of the Christians, their firmness, their resolve and confidence are signs to them of the power and reality of Jesus. They are signs of the tormentors coming destruction. They are signs which they must heed.
What does suffering indicate about God?
Jesus not only knew their present situation, but also their future. He said that they were about to suffer, and went on to speak of prison, testing, and tribulation. Note that he puts a time frame upon it: ten days. I have not studied the implications of the ten day period, but for now suffice it to say that it was finite.
It seems to me that many people use suffering as an argument against God. They make suffering an ultimate thing and declare some things about God. The standard arguments are as follows: God is not real, God is not all-knowing, God is not all-powerful or God is not good.
What we personally need to do when we come across these arguments is to consider what the scripture says. In this passage to a suffering church Jesus speaks from heaven. That would indicate that God is real. Jesus says that he knows their suffering and knows the length of it. That debunks the notion of his not knowing. Adding to his all-knowing character he sees the future, the finality, a farthest future, and knowing it declares the way to respond. For perseverance comes a crown of life. God is all-powerful.
So, regarding suffering God sees it, but God does not remove it. Jesus does not give an explanation, or rationale. He says, “I am aware of it. I see it. I have been there, and it will not last forever.”
A crown of life
Faithfulness without fear, perseverance in the face of suffering is not only real, but also is temporary. The devil gives a crown of suffering, but Jesus a crown of life. As I have been tripped by anxiety I am able to comfort others in theirs. Key in all of this is that they still have the anxiety. They must personally experience and master it. When they come through it they will be better able to cope with it and to comfort others that come after them. Jesus suffered and so he can identify. Jesus overcame and so he can call us to do the same. He speaks from a place of permanence and from there offers a crown of life. It is the Christian’s responsibility to have faith for that future.
11 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.’
The same injunction as we see on all of these letters and which John gave in chapter one is here. If you can hear what Jesus says, do it. In the power of Jesus there is great strength. To conquer suffering and the devil during this life is crucial and by doing so one escapes the hurt of eternity apart from God. Hell is being away from the presence of God. That is the second death.