8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 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 life as your victor’s crown. 11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” ~ Revelation 2:8-11
Life is best understood when we see the two realms: the visible and the invisible. And, in order to understand the invisible, we must be well-versed in the Scriptures. In this invisible realm much is happening that impacts us who live during what theologians call the church-age. Whereas Revelation 1 gives a description of John's first vision of the Lord Jesus, the entire church age which began in Acts 2, and is yet on-going, and is described in little detail in Revelation 2-3.
In Revelation 2-3 we have seven messages from the Lord Jesus to seven different churches. Five of these seven churches received very harsh words from the Lord Jesus. Two of them did not. In the case of these two, the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia, there are no harsh words. These two churches had not given in to the pressure of persecution.
Smyrna was one of the major centers of emperor worship in that day. As early as 26 A. D., during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a temple had been erected to the emperor, and thus the Christians of Smyrna were confronted with the challenge annually to choose between saying, "Jesus is Lord," or, "Caesar is Lord." This meant that a great deal of pressure and persecution came upon this church because of their unwillingness to say "Caesar is Lord." There was also a large community of Jews within the city who were hostile to the Christian faith, as we will see.
In v.8 of today's text we read, "To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again."
Smyrna means "myrrh." It is a very fitting name because myrrh is a perfume, the fragrance of which is released by crushing. Here was a church that was being crushed through persecution. It was tough to be a Christian in Smyrna because they had to live constantly between two extremes. There was within the church a rich and loving fellowship, but outside, in the city, they faced continuous cruel and persistent hostility.
Notice how the Lord reveals Himself to them, "the First and the Last, who died and came to life again." Those are extremes: First and last; death and life. The Lord Jesus presents Himself as the Lord of the extremes. And, He is Lord of all visible and invisible forces.
In v.9 we read, "I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. "
The Greek word used for afflictions here pictures the crushing, unending pressure upon these believers in Smyrna. Then, the Lord Jesus says to them, "I know your poverty." Smyrna was a prosperous city, but it may have been that their poverty was caused by the persecutions the Christians there were experiencing. Their homes perhaps had been pillaged; their possessions taken from them. This was common in the early church in times of persecution. Yet, the remainder of the first half of v.9 we read, "Yet you are rich!" In spite of their suffering, their fellowship was deep and meaningful. This is what persecution does, it causes the persecuted to draw closer to one another because there is the deeper need for one another.
Riches and fame do not make us happy. The true riches of this life come from a heart that is being given to the Lord. In return, the heart experiences the filling of God's grace and love. In this context, deep relationships are formed with others and they become most dear and precious to us. This was the experience of the church at Smyrna.
In the remainder of v.9 we read, "I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan."
There was a smear campaign going on against these Christians in Smyrna. Lies were being told about them. And, because they refused to visit the pagan temples, or to acknowledge the pagan gods, they were called atheists.
The synagogue there in Smyrna celebrated the fact that they worshipped the one true living God. Yet, they had rejected their Messiah; and in rejecting their Messiah Judaism demonstrated that it was as Satanic as emperor worship, or the worship of any other false god, or any false religion. They disdained Christ, therefore, they disdained God.
In v.10 we read, "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 life as your victor’s crown."
The church at Smyrna received the greatest amount of persecution because they held true to the Lord much longer than the others. This, by the way, is the first mention of the devil in the book of Revelation. The Lord acknowledges that He who is the First and the Last is going to allow this to happen. The devil will put some of them in prison which were some of the most terrible places where prisoners were faced with the threat of execution at any moment.
Tests like these are designed or allowed of God to strip us of the superficial supports that we have been leaning on and to show us how much we have truly learned to rely upon the grace and the strength of God.
The words "ten days" indicates that it is the Lord who is sovereign over the events of our lives. We do well to pray for protection but if the Lord allows persecution, we do better to pray that His will is done in and through our lives.
Interestingly, Polycarp was the elder of this very church at Smyrna. In 155 A. D., at the age of 86, he was sentenced to death by being burned at the stake for his faith. He had refused to say, "Caesar is Lord." When he died he gave an eloquent testimony to his love for Christ. As a teenager he had known the Apostle John, and had probably heard from his lips the truth recorded here in Revelation.
In v.11 we read, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death."
All of these churches received this same message. "The second death" here is explained in Revelation 20-21 where we are told plainly that it is the terrible lake of fire, the symbol of the final judgment of those who refuse the gospel of the grace of God. It is prepared for the devil and his angels, but it will be shared by those who choose the devil's way. They will be separated forever from God, tormented in spirit and soul, pictured by the torment that fire gives to the physical body.