In Part 2 of The letter to the persecuted church in Smyrna, we’ll look at the Divine Knowledge. The things Jesus knows about the church. Usually, this is good news for the receiving church. However, that’s not always the case. Jesus told the church in Smyrna, I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! That certainly sounds good, doesn’t it? Let’s keep going, and find out more.
Divine Knowledge in the seven letters:
Jesus’ first message to each church is: “I know your works.” The churches’ works are sometimes commendable, sometimes requiring censure.
Before we resume with the letter to the church in Smyrna, here’s the breakdown for this particular letter.
|To||the angel of the church in Smyrna|
|From||him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.|
|Divine Knowledge||I know your afflictions and your 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.|
|So -||Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of 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.
|To those who overcome||He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.|
Divine Knowledge of the church in Smyrna
I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!
OK – we most likely assume the rich part has to do with spiritual richness / maturity. But what are the afflictions and the poverty really about? It’s only by knowing what they are that we can begin to see and learn the lessons of success from the church in Smyrna.
Think back to how Jesus referred to Himself
When Jesus described Himself, He said: who died and came to life again. Add the meaning of Smyrna, and we see that once again, the situation in the church is directly related to Jesus’ description.
Note how each description of Christ goes back to the picture in 1:13–16, and how each one meets the special need of that church. Smyrna was the persecuted church, so Christ reminds them of His own suffering, death, and resurrection (2:8). Smyrna means “bitter” and is related to the word “myrrh.” One thinks of fragrance released because of crushing persecution. The church has always been the purest and the most fragrant when it was going through times of suffering. Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 802). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books
Now, take that last sentence and remember what we just saw about how many Christian churches today feel about their alleged persecution during this COVID-19 virus situation. What’s happening now isn’t even persecution of Christians – it’s something being applied to all large gatherings.
Ultimately, how do we think God might view our handling of things? Pure and sweet? Or something else?
The church in Smyrna was poor – but rich
I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!
Persecution often goes hand in hand with having possessions taken away. For instance, see what the author of Hebrews wrote regarding perseverance. While the original intended audience for the book of Hebrews was not today’s Christians, there are many things in it that are very relevant. Just to provide background, here’s who may have been the intended audience when it was written.
There are seven things about the readers that can be deduced from the epistle.
First, according to Hebrews 2:3–4, they, like the author, were second-generation believers. The readers and the author are united by the us in verse 3 and distinguished from those who were eyewitnesses.
Second, they were Jewish. Since the readers were respectful of Old Testament authority, the writer heavily quotes the Old Testament. The quotation from the Old Testament settles the argument, which indeed it would do for a Jewish audience.
Third, the readers were Jewish believers. The main danger the author warns against is that of going back into Judaism. This would not have been a temptation for Gentile believers. The entire backdrop and frame of reference from which the author writes are Jewish history and the Jewish religion. Some commentators believe the people in the audience to whom the author is writing are not believers because of statements he makes here and there, but he clearly treats them as believers.
Fourth, as stated in verse 12, the readers have been believers for a long time and they should now be teachers of the Word (5:11–14).
Fifth, although they have been believers for a long time, they have remained spiritually immature and have not progressed in the faith (5:11–14).
Sixth, the readers are wavering in their faith because of persecution (10:32–38).
Seventh, they are readers who know the author (13:19, 23). Fruchtenbaum, A. G. (2005). The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews, James, First Peter, Second Peter, Jude (1st ed., pp. 2–4). Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries.
So – while the entire passage may not be relevant to the church in Hebrews, or to the entire Christian church today, I include all of it in the hopes that it will help the self-evaluation part of what we’re doing here. Apply the parts that relate to the church in Smyrna and the parts that apply to each of you, as appropriate.
The need to persevere
See the underlined verses for situations like what was happening in the church in Smyrna specifically.
Heb 10:19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
These verses are important for anyone going through persecution to remember. If it’s an entire church going through persecution, it’s important for the people in it to help keep others on the narrow path Jesus spoke of. Small groups, church-wide prayers, even two or three together can help.
Heb 10:26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
While tribulation, persecution and suffering are hard enough to go through, think about the alternative. With God’s help, we can get through the temporary troubles. But when it’s God Himself who judges us and finds us guilty, who can help us when we fall into the hands of the living God? The answer, of course, is no one can help.
Heb 10:32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Sympathizing with someone going through persecution or other troubles is one thing. But when it’s us in prison and having our things taken away – does that change things? Do we go from sympathy to anger?
Heb 10:35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37 For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay.
For the church in Smyrna, the promise is: He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. A very appropriate promise for this church. One undergoing intense persecution and having so much taken away from them, that they are now poor in a city that was generally prosperous. But for them, if they maintain their faith and love for Jesus, the end for them will the beginning of eternal life with Jesus.
Heb 10:38 But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” 39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
That last part sounds like courage. Courage in the face of adversity.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Let’s look at something from the book of Acts. The scenario could have been possible for someone in the church in Smyrna. But not anymore. Obviously, we’re not going to stand before the Sanhedrin today. And yet, regardless of what the group is called, the issues and the adversity is still relevant today and will be during the Tribulation. So it’s worth looking at while examining the church in Smyrna, and while examining ourselves.
An example of persevering
Ac 4:1 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. 4 But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
No, we’re not likely to be put in jail here in the U.S. Not yet. But there are many places in the world where that really does happen today. Some places where the penalty for doing what Peter and John did where the penalty is death. Death – just like what’s coming in the Tribulation. For more on the current state of persecution, please see Persecution of Christians around the world and Chinese Religious Regulations on my other site.
The reason I point this out so clearly here has to do with what’s happening now, in COVID-19 stay at home times. I know lots of people in the U.S. and other western countries call it “lock-down”. But it’s not. It’s not lock-down in the sense like what’s happening in China. And we call the inability to meet in church unconstitutional.
It makes me wonder. How are we ever going to be able to deal with the Tribulation and what’s coming later, according to Revelation?
It seems like Christians, of all people, should realize the difference between the two. But it feels like, in general, we don’t.
That doesn’t bode well for anyone who might want to become a Christian in the future. Rather than the courageous leaders in the early church, we have, well – we have what we have. It’s worrisome.
Ac 4:5 The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
Will we have the courage to answer this question as Peter did? It’s an extremely difficult question to answer. During the Tribulation, would we be willing to answer – and then die for that answer?
Ac 4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 He is “ ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ 12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
This is a far cry from the cowardice that Peter showed when Jesus was arrested. No denials. No hiding. No fear.
Ac 4:13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. 15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. 16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”
This won’t happen during the Tribulation. There won’t be any counter-offers of negotiation. There will be death. Period. No discussion. If we are alive then, are we ready? If we’re raptured, but our families, friends and other relatives are still there, have we done anything to get them ready?
Ac 4:18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. 20 For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Talk about courage. Peter and John turned down the offer. Refused to be silent. But still they were set free. Again, that’s not going to be the case during the Tribulation. Are we ready?
Ac 4:21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old.
And that’s part of the reason why it’s not going to happen. because all the people were praising God for what had happened. A whole bunch of people praising God isn’t going to happen either. Not unless there’s a mass slaughter right afterwards.
We probably can’t imagine that happening. At least not those of us in a “civilized” western-style country. But as Christians, we should know the Bible says it’s coming. We should believe it. And we should be prepared ourselves. And, we should be preparing people we love and care about. Oh – by the way – isn’t that supposed to be, literally, everyone?
I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!
So we’ve looked at the afflictions – the persecution.
How was the church in Smyrna rich?
The poverty was exactly what it sounds like – poor in a city that was rather wealthy.
The riches? Spiritual.
6:22, 23 pp — Lk 11:34-36
Mt 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Mt 6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
Mt 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
A church like Smyrna, poor in economic terms, but rich in spiritual terms, is being praised by Jesus. This is the kind of church that can survive the Tribulation. Their treasure and their hearts were in Heaven.
Can we say the same thing?
Smyrna is the only city still remaining of the seven who received letters in Revelation. It’s in Turkey, although it has a new name: Izmir.
Philadelphia no longer has a major city, although there is still a small church in existence in the location.
One other note to remember for later in the series. The church in Smyrna received some of the same words as the Laodicean church – although in a different order. Smyrna was poor – but rich. Laodicea was rich – but poor. Yet more reason for self-examination.
The synagogue of Satan in Smyrna
I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
As in the case of the Philadelphian church (3:9), the troublers of the church in Smyrna were those who say they are Jews and are not (v. 9)—in other words, unbelieving Jews, whom Jesus here considers to be a synagogue of Satan (c.f. John 8:44). Smyrna had the largest Jewish population of any Asian city. If this was written prior to a.d. 70, then it was a period in which the main adversaries of Christianity were the Jews. The church there was understandably harassed more than most.Gregg, S. (1997). Revelation, four views: a parallel commentary (p. 67). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers.
It’s like, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
23:1-7 pp — Mk 12:38, 39; Lk 20:45, 46 23:37-39 pp — Lk 13:34, 35
Mt 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
Mt 23:5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
Mt 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Mt 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
[Mt 23:14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.”] Is not included in the NIV, but is in some other translations. It would, of course, make eight woes. New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Mt 23:14). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
Mt 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
Today’s church enemies aren’t limited to the ones Jesus spoke of. For instance, if you checked out any of the stuff on Chinese regulations on the Christian Church – China is literally re-writing the Bible. And they’re changing the teachings of the church.
For Catholics, somehow the Pope even became complicit in this process, when he gave the Communist government in China the right to pick Bishops for the “Chinese Catholic Church”. Please see China appoints seven Catholic Bishops – did the Pope just sell out underground churches? for more on that development.
So much of what we read in Revelation can seem so impossible. And yet, more and more of the things needed for the Tribulation to begin are actually happening. Are we as ready as the church in Smyrna? Will our loved ones be as ready as the church in Smyrna?
Will our legacy be the same as that of the church in Smyrna? Or will we just silently pass away, literally and figuratively?
After you ponder and pray on that for a while, here’s the next portion of the letter to the church in Smyrna – the “but …” section.
|↑1||Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 802). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books|
|↑2||Fruchtenbaum, A. G. (2005). The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews, James, First Peter, Second Peter, Jude (1st ed., pp. 2–4). Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries.|
|↑3||Gregg, S. (1997). Revelation, four views: a parallel commentary (p. 67). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers.|
|↑4||New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Mt 23:14). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.|