Orthodox but dead -- that is how the church historian Schaff describes the church at Ephesus, AD 95. "You have forsaken the love you had at first," warns the Lord Jesus Christ through the Apostle John.
Moving on, our Lord next gives a message to another church in that area of Asia Minor -- modern Turkey. Turn in your Bible to Revelation 2:8-11 and see what the Son says to this congregation of believers living under the threat of death physically, yet very much alive spiritually. This is the text for this study.
How different this letter is from the previous one. The assembly of believers in Smyrna is beloved, though poor. No fault is found in them. The Lord seeks, rather to encourage these suffering Christians.
Possibly one hearing this message may be now in trial. Observe very carefully the three means Jesus uses to encourage his children in Smyrna. It will help you.
I. TWO WORDS OF INSTRUCTION
The Lord says, "I know your afflictions and your poverty," verse 9. In the thick dust of trying circumstances, we get confused, lose perspective. Two clear words of instruction are sounded in their troubled ears.
- "You are rich!" In actual situation they were in poverty. Many of them had lost jobs. (Being tagged as a follower of Jesus was far from popular!) How different is the saint from his situation. In poverty, they were rich. The Almighty was their Father and heaven was their home. In the meanwhile, the riches of His consolation was theirs.
- "They are...of Satan." What contrast! Their most bitter and blasphemous opponents were a colony of Jews. The Son of God declares them to be a veritable "synagogue of Satan." Not everyone who professes God possesses God. In the face of religious opposition, we need to go to our Lord for careful study of His word to see who is "of God" and who is "of Satan."
II. TWO WORDS OF CHALLENGE
- Fear nothing ahead. Mark His words, "you will suffer," verse 10. Trouble ahead, but the faithful Shepherd leads His sheep. Caught in the crossfire between the pagan Roman idolatry and the zealous Jews, the poor Christian community at Smyrna was in constant jeopardy. "you will suffer persecution for ten days," Jesus tells them. This time expression indicates the tribulation will be severe but limited in duration, with an end in sight.
- Be faithful. This involves a continuing trustworthiness, a keeping true to God, not just a for-now dedication. Stay on course against any and all opposition...even unto death. See Matthew 10:28.
Would you be a good Christian if poverty and hunger threatened...or maybe death at the stake or by wild beasts? One says, "I've taken all I can at home; I simply cannot live the Christian life." Another complains, "My temptations are too great for me; I am going 'under' for the last time." But Jesus counsels, "Get up, my child, seek God's mercy yet again."
III. TWO WORDS OF PROMISE
- A Crown of Life. "I will give you life!", verse 10. Look back at verse 8. That is basic. Jesus Christ is the Living One. In human flesh, He faced and conquered death on our behalf. He is the One who can quicken you, even from the very depths. Abraham had this kind of faith regarding his son Isaac "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead," Hebrews 11:19. Maybe it is hard to have great enough faith to reach out of the dark valley into the light of life, but see Romans 8:11. It is there for you!
This crown of life means that God's victory wreath will last. He is simply promising that one who stays faith-full will get through each dark valley of this world and also that deeper in-between darkness of the grave.
2. No second death. This speaks of eternal hell which the wicked suffer. John's sober words in 20:14 are that "The lake of fire is the second death."
"Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20. "The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death," Revelation 2:11.
IN THE YEAR 155 AD, the very "messenger" mentioned in our text verse 8 as "angel", or leading elder of the church, was still standing faithful. This was the year -- about 60 years after the Revelation was written -- that the venerable Polycarp was martyred.
They had demanded that the leader of the Smyrna church confess "Caesar is Lord." He refused. The crowd, tingling with excitement and thirst for blood, gathered at the stadium.
"Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ," the heathen proconsul urges.
The godly old man replies, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and My Savior?"
Threats follow: "I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent." And, "I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent."
To which Polycarp calmly replies, "Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt."
Led by the eager Jews, men quickly pile faggots at the stake. The historian Schaff says Polycarp"joyfully went up to the stake, and amidst the flames praised God for having deemed him worthy 'to be numbered among his martyrs, to drink the cup of Christ's sufferings, unto the eternal resurrection of the soul and the body in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit.'"
There today on a hill, a plain stone monument marks the grave where loving hands placed the charred bones.....still God's silent testimony. Truly, it is a wonderful thing to be a Christian when it is hard!