POOR AND PERSECUTED, BUT RICH
Philippe R. Sterling
Have you ever been persecuted for your faith? Have you ever been put at a disadvantage because of your faith? Have others ever hated or shunned you merely because you were a believer?
The teachings of Revelation 2:8-11 and the example of Smyrna can help us cope. They alert us to the possibility of being persecuted in various ways for our faith, and encourage us to remain faithful to Christ. Smyrna means “bitter,” an appropriate description for the experience of believers who lived there. They experienced severe persecution and the hardships that accompany it.
We don’t know a whole lot about Smyrna, but we know a few things. Smyrna was a major city, about forty miles north of Ephesus but not as big. It was a bustling seaport and a center of wealth and science. It still exists today as a major city of Turkey. The name of it is Izmir, the Turkish equivalent of Smyrna. One third of its community is Christian. The church has had a continuous faithful witness for God while many others of the early churches have long lost their testimony.
Smyrna was very cozy with Rome. Many Roman citizens lived there. Whereas Ephesus was the center of worship for the local goddess, Smyrna was a center of emperor worship. In AD 25, a temple was built there to Emperor Tiberius. Thus, emperor worship became a matter of great pride and loyalty to the people of Smyrna. In John’s time, Emperor Domitian had declared himself a god and required all citizens to perform a sacrifice to him, saying, “Caesar is Lord.” This was mostly a political commitment in religious trappings, but most believers saw it as idolatry. Once you performed the sacrifice, you would get a certificate. Without that certificate, you were a subject of discrimination and possibly punishment.
There was also a substantial Jewish community in Smyrna. Although Jews and Christians coexisted peaceably in some areas, this was not the case in Smyrna. Well into the second century, the Jews were strong opponents of the Smyrna church. They repeatedly informed against Christians and incited the local governor against them.
The city of Smyrna received its name from its commerce in the fragrant herb myrrh. In the providence of God, the name came to symbolize the experience of the church when it entered severe persecution. The word “myrrh” has to do with embalming, with suffering, with death. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus used myrrh for embalming the body of Jesus (John 19:39). It was one of the gifts the wise men gave Jesus at His birth (Matthew 2:11).
Portrayal of Jesus
Jesus, who’s dictating the letter, describes Himself as the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. Why might this be important to the believers there?
Christ was around before the Emperor and would be around long afterward. He had conquered death. Here was the promise of resurrection for the threatened believers. As Jesus experienced death and rose in triumph over it, so will the martyrs, a fact guaranteed by His eternal nature.
Praise for the Church
Jesus says He knows about the Smyrna situation. He knew of their affliction, their poverty, and the slander against them. He states that though materially poor, they were spiritually rich.
If Smyrna was such a wealthy city, why were the believers poor? Likely there was economic persecution. Believers lost their jobs, their businesses, their lands because of their loyalty to Christ. The economic and social life of the city was organized around the religious and imperial cults. When a believer refused to participate in some of their observance, he was marked off. His faith cut him off from the job that he held and from social life.
Who were “those who say they are Jews and are not”? There was a pocket of Jewish troublemakers causing problems for the church. By birth and religion these may have been Jews, but this was only an outward sense. Inwardly, they were not believing and did not have a circumcised heart (see Rom. 2:28-29). They were not of the faith of Abraham.
They are rather the synagogue of Satan. This is not a synagogue building, of course, but the people who gathered there. They assembled and planned their assault on the church, putting themselves at the disposal of the devil to carry out his will. They were circulating many false ideas of believers in Christ. They accused them of cannibalism – eating flesh and drinking blood at the Lord’s Supper, incest – love between “brothers and sisters”, and treason – meeting in secret to promote the kingdom of Christ.
In what ways are believers slandered today? Believers are accused of hate speech for upholding biblical values. Believers are accused of being anti-science for holding creation views.
Criticism of the Church
There are no words of reproof for this church. There is no call to repentance. Their trials kept them from compromise with evil. The purifying fires of affliction caused their lamp of testimony to burn all the more brilliantly.
Persecution was the watchword of this church. They had suffered often at the hands of the Romans and would suffer even more in the years to come. Their devotion to Christ was such that they refused to burn incense at Caesar’s bust. They paid dearly for their faithfulness to the Savior.
How should believers react to persecution? Jesus says, “Stop being afraid, be faithful.”
One of the most famous martyrdoms happened in this city of Smyrna in 168. The pastor there at the time was Polycarp. On a festival day, when the crowds were excitable, a cry went out from the mob about Polycarp and they brought him before the Roman governor.
Polycarp was given the choice of saying, Caesar is Lord” or “Jesus is Lord.” He refused to say that Caesar was Lord. The governor urged him, “Swear! I will set you free. Reproach Christ.” Polycarp answered with this famous phrase, “I have served Him for eighty-six years and He has always done me good. How, then, can I blaspheme my Lord and my Savior.” The proconsul said, “I will burn you with fire if you will not change.” Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished. But you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. Why do you wait? Do what you will?” Soon after, the people gathered the wood and burned Polycarp.
What is the “ten days” of tribulation all about? It could be a literal prediction of some ten-day reign of terror. Or it may have symbolic meaning of ten periods of persecution from Nero to Diocletian. Most likely, however, it may simply stand for “a short time.”
As was so often the case, the blood of the martyrs was the “seed of the church.” The church at Smyrna grew into one of the most influential churches of its time because its leaders and believers were willing to lay down their lives for Christ.
Penalty or Reward
Jesus promises a crown of life to those who are faithful to the point of death. Why would this appeal to those in Smyrna? A crown of laurel was given to those who won races. The believers at Smyrna would have won the race of life. Also, their persecutor, Emperor Domitian, wore a crown. In the life to come, the believers will reign. The crown is a special reward that is over and above the eternal life that all believers have. The New Testament cites five crowns for overcomers:
- the incorruptible crown (1 Cor. 9:14-27)
- the crown of rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:19-20)
- the crown of life (James 1:12; Rev. 2:10)
- the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8)
- the crown of glory (1 Peter 5:2-4)
The command to hear is identical with the one to the church at Ephesus. The Lord’s announcement of imprisonment and martyrdom for some of the believers in Smyrna has some applicability to the other churches also.
Promise to Overcomers
What is the “second death”? The second death is judgment at the great white throne, the lake of fire, separation from God for eternity (Rev. 20:14).
The one who overcomes will in no way be hurt by the second death. Jesus employs a figure of speech called litotes. Litotes is an assertion that understates the reality being referenced. Jesus is making an understatement. He is saying that the faithful believer will be more than amply repaid for whatever sacrifice he may make for Christ’s sake, and that his eternal experience will be so far beyond the reach of the second death that it cannot be imagined.
Why would this encourage the believers at Smyrna? They would be facing deadly persecution, and this puts it in perspective. The first death is not the end. There is another life to come. The glories of the life to come contrast with the dark shadows of persecution and death.
Conclusion – Poor and Persecuted, But Rich! – The War on Faith
WWJS to the church experiencing persecution: “Don’t be intimidated by opposition. Remain faithful.”
The Lord assures the Smyrnan believers that He knows about their faithful service despite great persecution and poverty. They are actually very rich in His sight, even though they have lost everything in this life for His sake, because they are earning eternal rewards.
Persecutors in our culture may not arrest you or execute you, but they may mock you, lie about you, or make you lose your job. There is now a name for that: “the cancel culture.” Our culture supposedly tolerates any belief, but biblical faith consistently applied is shocking and unacceptable.
How should we respond when we hear of believers in other countries being persecuted for their faith? Pray; help in any way possible; learn from them; push political leaders to change things.
Let us ask God for strength when our faith puts us at a disadvantage in today’s world. Also, pray for those believers around the world who are suffering for their faith.