Study Notes: Revelation 2:8-11 The Church at Smyrna

To the Church in Smyrna

The church in Smyrna was likely founded during Paul’s third missionary journey. Smyrna was one of the most beautiful cities in Asia. A rival to Ephesus, they considered themselves the ‘first city of Asia’ and were happily situated on the Aegean Sea.[i]

Hendricksen describes the scene:

A gloriously picturesque city, is sloped up from the sea, and its splendid public building on the rounded top of the hill Pagos formed what was known as ‘the crown of Smyrna’. The westerly breeze, the zephyr, comes from the sea and blows through every part of the city rendering it fresh and cool even during the summer.[ii]

Apparently the people of Smyrna had always been loyal to Rome – so much so that their faithfulness became proverbial throughout the Roman Empire. And it is the only of the seven cities of ancient Asia written to here in Revelation that still remain today (not called Izmir).[iii]

There was a substantial colony of Jews who must have been living in Smyrna at this time, and we know from history that they were very hostile – along with other Gentiles – to the Christian message.

This was the city where it is believe Polycarp was bishop. Polycarp was a disciple of John, and a famous Martyr. John Foxe wrote of him as follows:

After a respite, the Christians again came under persecution, this time from Marcus Aurelius, in AD 161.

One of those who suffered this time was Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna…

Hearing his captors had arrived one evening, Polycarp left his bed to welcome them, ordered a meal prepared for them, and then asked for an hour alone to pray. The soldiers were so impressed by Polycarp’s advanced age and composure that they began to wonder why they had been sent to take him; but as soon as he had finished his prayer, they put him on a donkey and brought him to the city.

As he entered the stadium with is guards, a voice from heaven was heard to say, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” No one nearby saw anyone speaking, but many people heard the voice.

Brought before the tribunal and the crowd, Polycarp refused to deny Christ, although the proconsul begged him: “Consider yourself and have pity on your great age. Reproach Christ and I will release you.”

Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never once wronged me. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Threatened with wild beasts and fire, Polycarp stood his ground. “What are you waiting for? Do whatever you please.” The crowd demanded Polycarp’s death, gathering wood for the fire and preparing to tie him to the stake.

“Leave me,” he said. “He who will give me strength to sustain the fire will help me not flinch from the pile.” So they bound him but didn’t nail him to the stake. As soon as Polycarp finished him prayer the fire was lit, but it leaped up around him, leaving him unburned, until the people convinced a soldier to plunge a sword into him. When he did, so much blood gushed out that the fire was immediately extinguished. The soldiers then placed his body into a fire and burned it to ashes, which some Christians later gathered up and buried properly.[iv]

Hendriksen, Macarthur (in an extended treatment), and Ladd all mention this story as well because it offers us context for understanding the kind of persecution that the early church faced. This is why John’s letter was so important to them.

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.

We’ve spoken in the past few lessons about the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus has already used this description for himself a few times now in the book. We just read in 1:18 that, “and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades”

Why is it that Jesus seems so intent on using the resurrection as a descriptor for himself?

I believe that the reason ties in to the one of the book’s major themes, namely to comfort Christians. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then much of what we believe would really not be founded on much at all.

Paul put it this way:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. [14] And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. [15] We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. [16] For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. [17] And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. [18] Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. [19] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:13-19)

So Jesus is going out of His way to ensure His followers that they aren’t just blindly following a dead man. They aren’t suffering for someone’s memory, and they aren’t going through terrible persecution for no reason with no hope and no end in sight.

Furthermore, He once again ties the resurrection in with His deity. He essentially proclaims that He is God by stating that He is eternal. That is what He means when He says, “The words of the first and the last.”

Now, what is amazing to me is that there is yet another close bond between His eternality and His resurrection. Do you know what that is? It’s found in the book of Acts in one of Peter’s sermons:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—[23] this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. [24] God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)

Death cannot hold down what is eternal!

I like what my good friend Tony Romano said one time (paraphrasing John Piper I believe):

When you kill a man, and He gets up three days later and walk out triumphant and then ascends up into heaven…that guy can’t be stopped! Therefore, He’s the guarantee (of our salvation).

No wonder Jesus wanted to address the church this way! This would have been a powerful reminder of His triumph over the grave.

2:9 “‘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.

Let’s look together at two things here. First, the nature of true riches, and second, what it means to be a real “Jew.”

True Riches

I love the parenthetical statement by Jesus here. First, He acknowledges their poverty and their troubles. But He is quick to say that even though they are materially poor, they are truly rich! Why? Because they have treasure which cannot be taken away from them! They have been given abundant riches in Christ.

What a contrast here between the way charlatans like Joel Olsteen teach and how our Lord teaches!

And this is not an isolated sentence. The Scriptures speak continually of what true treasure really looks like. I can broadly categorize these verses into two categories: Those that warn of money’s inability to provide salvation or peace, and those which encourage a more substantial treasure which is found in the things of God.

A few warnings…

They will fling their silver into the streets and their gold will become an abhorrent thing; their silver and their gold will not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the LORD. They cannot satisfy their appetite nor can they fill their stomachs, for their iniquity has become an occasion of stumbling. (Ezekiel 7:19)

Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, But righteousness delivers from death. (Proverbs 11:4)

Neither their silver nor their gold Will be able to deliver them On the day of the LORD’S wrath; And all the earth will be devoured In the fire of His jealousy, For He will make a complete end, Indeed a terrifying one, Of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Zephaniah 1:18)

A better way…

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19)

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, [17] and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ [18] And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. [19] And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ [20] But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ [21] So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

There are many more (as you might imagine!). And when we get to chapter three, the topic will come up again!

Why do you think it is that Jesus feels its important to address this? Why remind them of the fact that they are truly rich? Why not just tell them that if they’ll obey, they’ll find wealth here on earth. After all, that’s what we’re told today by many a pastor.

I believe it is because Jesus is really interested in giving us a life eternal, but also in helping us face this life with clear eyes and hearts that won’t melt at the first sign of trouble. In other words, He’s a realist – in fact He is the ultimate interpreter of reality.

But there is something more…abundant life does start now in this life whether you’re poor financially or rich. Some of the richest people in this world are those who are most miserable. This have always been the case. I’m not saying that being poor is wonderful, so don’t get me wrong on that account, because its not! But rather, sometimes money can cloud our thinking and interrupt us from focusing on what will make us most happy in life – peace with God and others. A full heart. A happy heart. A mind not full of hate and violence. A life not marked by sin. And much more. These are the root matters – the heart of the situation, you might say. And it is this root, this foundational level of life, which Jesus is seeking to renew.

“He Who is a Jew…”

Here is where it may be easy to get tripped up if we are reading in an overly literal way, and why we need to learn to read our Bibles in light of how the New Testament authors have written, not allowing our own presuppositions to cloud our thinking.[v]

John seems to be saying there are some false Jews – people who claim to be Jews but are really “of the Synagogue of Satan.” Is John referring to ethnic Jews, or is he using “Jews” as a way to describe the people of God? I think “both” is the answer.

First of all, let us think through some things here logically. It is not like being a Jew was just a choice. It is an ethnic distinction. So no one is going to be fooled by someone pretending to be a Jew outwardly. You either are or you aren’t. So the question is: why would John be writing to the Christian church in order to warn them of false Jews, as if being a good Jew was somehow now the paragon of what God wanted in the new covenant community? Furthermore, why would Christians be on the lookout for those who are true Jews (in the ethnic sense), when it was those (supposed) law-abiding Jews who were most hostile to Christians during this time?

George Ladd helps provide the answer:

These “Jews” are without question Jews by race and religion, who met together in the synagogue to worship the Lord. But in reality, inwardly, they are not Jews because they have rejected Jesus as their Messiah and confirmed their rejection by persecuting his church. Who, then, are the true Jews? John does not offer an explicit answer, but the implication is clear: true Jews are the people of the Messiah.

Therefore, though Jesus is making a distinction between those who appear outwardly as religious, but inwardly not God’s people.

Think of how Paul uses the term “Jew” in Romans (both MacArthur and Ladd go on to quote Romans 2):

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. [29] But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)

And…

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [8] This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6-8)

And as Beale concludes, “That the Jewish community is identified as false Jews and a synagogue of Satan confirms again that the church is seen by Christ as the true people of God, true Israel. This identification is confirmed not only by broad contextual indicators (e.g 1:6, 9, 12; 217; 3:9, 12; 5:9-10; 7:4-9. 15-17; 11:1-4), but also by recognizing that in the immediate context the church is seen as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy about Israel.”[vi]

The second major point here is that those who are not “Jews” are of the church or “synagogue” of Satan. What this means is that there is a strict dichotomy in this life. You are either a Christian or you’re in the enemy camp. Even if you think you’re a non-combatant, you’re simply a pawn of the Enemy.

As Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

There is no middle ground spiritually. There are only those who are saved, and those who are not. There will be no Purgatory in the afterlife; there will be no middle ground for eternity. There is no salvation for those who abstain from belief in God.

2:10 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.

Be Faithful

It has sort of become a joke that the first time Rod Kinsey and I got into a discussion about faith and our beliefs, he told me that there is really only one main thing that dominates his thinking about the Christian life. That one thing is summed up in two words: Be faithful.

What does it mean to “be faithful”?

I’d say that if we’re to take this passage as our study guide it means to follow Christ no matter the circumstances or consequences – even unto death.

Now who would do such a thing for a man that never rose from the dead (I told you the resurrection was important!)?

The resurrection itself has been so well defended, that no credible historical, psychological, philosophical, or archeological argument remains viable. I believe that all the past debate on this matter was because everyone from Christian scholars to atheist historians have understood the stakes. But for the purposes of what we’re talking about here, we need to understand that in order to have faith that is strong enough to last even “unto death”, I believe two things must be in place:

  1. There must be a logical (mental) fact-based reason for believing that having Christian faith is reasonable. Remember, we don’t just hold these beliefs blindly. God has given us His word, and the entire created order from which to know Him.
  2. There must be a radical change of the heart – a supernatural change that must come from outside ourselves. It is not just enough to know something is true. Just knowing something is true is not enough for millions of Christians to have died for that “reason.” There must also be such a powerful transformation of the heart that one is willing to do whatever before ever renouncing the name of the Lord Jesus.

Side Note: Now, you might say that, “millions have died for Islam” – this is true. However, they are still missing these two components. They might think they have the first, but for many, their reasoning is based not on facts, but on lies told them by their Imam. They certainly don’t have the second. Perhaps they mistake the second as passion for their cause – but this isn’t the same thing as having a heart transformed by the Spirit of God. The proof is measured in their works. For one thing, the result of a Christian’s heart change is peace and love, whereas the passion of a Muslim is most often devotion through killing and murder of innocents. This is a larger conversation, but its one worth having in the appropriate context.

Therefore, Jesus calls His followers to faith because He knows He’s given them a legitimate reason, and an transforming ability and strength to remain faithful. For as Paul rightly states:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

2:11 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.’

Once again Jesus uses the terminology about hearing with the help of the Spirit – “having an ear” is something we’ve spoken about before, and it indicates that this letter is written to those whose hearts belong to Jesus.

But this is the first time we’ve encountered the phrase the “second death” – spiritual death. The second death is not physical, but spiritual. It is spiritual separation from the Father and an eternity in Hell.

Jesus is conveying in clear terms that though you may die for my name here on earth in Asia (or anywhere else for that matter), you will not experience spiritual separation from God upon physical death.

John MacArthur notes that the word “not” here is “the strongest negative the Greek language can express.”[vii] It is an emphatic statement of comfort. The one who conquered death and holds its’ keys (1:18) will not allow His true church to perish for eternity no matter what happens here on earth.

Therefore stand fast in the Lord. For as Paul says:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. [57] But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [58] Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:56-58)

Footnotes

[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 63.

[ii] Hendriksen, Pg. 64.

[iii] Mounce, Pg. 91.

[iv] John Foxe, ‘Foxe’s Christian Martyrs’, (abridged and modern language edition) Pg. 22.

[v] Significantly, even John MacArthur acknowledges that John isn’t referring to ethnic Jews but to those who are Jews in the Pauline sense (Romans 2:28-29 is cited in his commentary): the church. This is an example of where MacArthur gets it right, but where his hermeneutic also falls apart. If we are to read everything literally where possible it makes it difficult to come to this conclusion. I believe MacArthur comes to this conclusion because he is a man so steeped in Biblical knowledge that when he reads the passage, verse after verse from Paul spring to mind and he cannot deny the weight of the NT usage of the term – especially in light of the obvious issues with this referring to ethnic Jews (detailed above). The issue is that he should have first asked “how does the NT talk about Jews, and what is the context of the exhortation/immediate surrounding context, along with the wider context of the book itself (which is highly symbolic)? MacArthur is not saved by his hermeneutic in my opinion, but by his years of faithful exposition and Bible study. I greatly respect his wisdom, but I believe his hermeneutic starts him in the wrong place and makes it much more difficult for those laymen who are not as steeped in the Bible and don’t have that knowledge to correct ill-conceived presuppositions.

[vi] Beale, the shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 62.

[vii] MacArthur, Pg. 79.

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