Understanding The Apocalypse

Revelation 2:8-11
Chapter 3

Smyrna is located just 35 miles North of the site of Ephesus and was a bustling, wealthy, seaport city at the time of the writing of John's letter. The attitude of the City toward Christians was quite unlike that in Ephesus. While tolerance toward the Church in Ephesus, allowed it to flourish openly, the inhabitants of Smyrna were intolerant and great persecution of the Church arose in Smyrna. It is this persecution that is the focal point of the letter John wrote to the Church in Smyrna.

Not only is the present and local persecution of the Church at Smyrna in view, but this letter also foretold the great persecutions the Church universal would suffer at the hands of the Roman Empire. Persecution of God's people has been with us since the beginning of human history. Indeed, from the day when Cain killed his own brother because Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice to God, until the present day, those who believe God and are counted righteous have been led as sheep to the slaughter by those outside the Grace of God.

So, there is the perennial question.

I. Why Does God Allow His Church To Be Persecuted?

In attempting to answer this age old question, we must first realize that persecution of the Church demonstrates hatred for God. Someone has said, "If men were able to kill God, His life would not be safe for a moment." The truth of this statement was demonstrated when Christ became flesh and dwelled among us. Rather than welcome Him as Savior and Lord, people crucified Him. Therefore, because they cannot reach God, unrepentant humanity persecutes God's people in the Church. However, we should not be surprised. Neither should this attitude towards Christians be unexpected, for our Lord Himself said, in John 15:20, "If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you."

That our Lord permits persecution and told us to expect it, should tell us it serves His purpose. This is not to say, God causes persecution of His people, but that He allows it to happen for very specific reasons. One reason that comes to mind is that this demonstrated hatred of God allows some to see their own sinful estate and in repentance, come to Christ as the Savior and Captain of their souls.

For Example, John Newton lived during a very dark period of history insofar as man's inhumanity to man is concerned. John went to sea early in life and finally worked his way to captain of an English ship. For four years, John was the captain of a slave ship that dealt death and misery to thousands of African captives.

This demonstrated hatred of humanity and the God who created them caused Newton to search his own life, which resulted in his repentance and conversion. John Newton left the sea, became an Anglican priest and later wrote his famous hymn, "Amazing Grace."

A second reason for allowing persecutions is that persecutions prove genuine faith. One survey said over 80% of Americans claim to be Christians. Yet, crime is at epidemic proportions. Broken homes and dysfunctional families are the norm, rather than the exception. Sales of legal intoxicating drugs including alcohol are increasing yearly, as is the illegal drug trade undermining our nation and it's economy. Legalized gambling exists in some form in nearly every State in the Union and in many States it is sponsored and promoted by state government. Television, which beginning in the 50's was the American family's window to the world has become a cesspool of sex and violence that Americans allow their children to absorb an average of six hours a day.

So, where are these Christians who supposedly make up 80% of our population? Do all these things occur behind their backs? Or, is it possible they too are partakers of the evil? Perhaps, they are not "Christians" at all, or if they are, they are certainly not committed to the cause of Christ. Because it is easy to claim to be a Christian when there is no risk involved, to take a stand for the Lord Jesus Christ while knowing that persecution or death is imminent takes real faith. We call people that do this, martyrs.

Because persecution serves to remove hypocrites and false followers from the Church, and since there is no mention of error in the Church at Smyrna, we can assume it had been purified by persecution.

This then, is the situation of the Church in Smyrna: She was under great persecution but the members were willing to die for their Lord and consequently, the church was pure in membership and in doctrine.

With this background in mind, John discusses,

II. The Sufficiency of Christ

"And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the first and the last, who was dead, and is alive" (Revelation 2:8).

Notice first, that Christ is presented as "the First and the Last," or the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. He was there when everything else began and He will be there when everything else is ended. He is the Almighty, the Creator of the Universe.

Notice also, the text says He "was dead," and He was. He was crucified by sinful men who rejected Him and His salvation. The point is this, if the saints at Smyrna are persecuted even to the point of death, it is no more than their Lord has suffered at the hands of sinful people. Yet, Revelation 2:8 also says, He is alive and because He lives, so will those who are persecuted for His name's sake.

Paul said, in 2 Timothy 3:12, "All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." Persecution is recognized as one of the proofs of godly living and the persecution of the Church at Smyrna proves their godly living.

Are Christians, in America today, bothered by persecution because of their godly living? Not likely, but if they are, it is no more than our Lord suffered and no matter what happens to one's body, Christians are ensured of everlasting life with Him.

Next, in presenting His sufficiency, the Lord says He knows their situation, in Revelation 2:9. "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich); and I know the blasphemy of them who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan."

One of the great mysteries of the 20th Century was the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Somewhere in the South Pacific, she lost radio contact with those who were monitoring her progress and was never heard again. Had she not lost radio contact, perhaps, she could have been saved. However, because no one knew her situation, no one could help her.

This will never happen to a Christian. Our Lord Jesus Christ is clearly telling us that He always knows our situation, just as He knew the situation in Smyrna and because He always knows our situation, He is always there for us.

Leta Crow told me that during the great depression years people used to live in the mines west of Dawson, Oklahoma. Because they had no jobs, they had no homes and were forced to live in holes or in shelters built from cardboard or anything else they could find.

This is not too different from the plight of the Christians at Smyrna or anywhere else in the Roman Empire at the time of the persecutions. During this terrible period, those who were suspected of being Christians were arrested and taken to a coliseum where they were publicly given opportunity to recant their faith in Christ and to offer sacrifices to idols. Those who refused to recant were tortured or killed and their property was seized. Those who survived were cast out of the city where they lived in the catacombs or tombs of the dead.

Christ knew the works, the tribulation, and the poverty the Christians in Smyrna were experiencing as a result of their faithfulness to Him. Yet, in spite of the situation, He tells them they are rich. However, He not only tells them they are rich, He quickly tells them that things are going to get worse, in Revelation 2:10.

"Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried, and ye shall have tribulation ten days; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."
Christians at Smyrna would be imprisoned. They would be tried or tested. They would even be put to death during a time of tribulation or great persecution. Notice, Jesus tells them this tribulation or persecution of the Church will last for ten days. The words, "Ten days," are best understood as meaning ten periods of time. This seems to be a prophetic reference to the ten great persecutions of Christians that occurred under the Emperors of Rome from 60 A. D. to 316 A. D. During this period each succeeding Emperor, beginning with Nero, determined to make it more difficult for Christians than his predecessor. In succession, they crucified, beheaded, burned and threw Christians to the lions by the thousands, each trying to outdo the former.

So, how could anyone facing such extreme persecution be considered rich? The answer is in Revelation 2:10. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." This crown (gk. stephanos) is a symbol of victory and with it comes honor and authority given to reward the victor's accomplishments. The Crown of Life comes with victory over death and recognition in God's Kingdom - now, that's rich.

Understand, they will receive this crown, not because they faced death, but because they had faith. Facing death is the proof that their faith is real. It is faith, not death that saves people. It is faith in Christ alone that allows one to overcome death.

Also, in Revelation 2:9, we are told Christ knows the persecutors of His people, "...and I know the blasphemy of them who say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." Sadly, from the beginning of the Church, organized religion has been one of its greatest enemies.

In John 16:2, Jesus said, "...the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." This is the case here. They say they are Jews, that is, they claim to be God's chosen people but they are in reality the "synagogue" or "dwelling place" of Satan. This is another way of saying that Satan resides or dwells in them, and their actions against the Church prove this to be true. Their persecutions of the Church are blasphemy, which is any remark or action against God, and certainly, persecution of the Church, the bride and body of Christ, falls into this category. Surely, the Lord knows who persecutes His Church and for those who remain unrepentant toward the Lord and His church, there will be a day of reckoning.

In Revelation 2:10, we see the real source of the persecution of the Church is the devil. Do not be deceived. Anytime the Church is under attack, whether that attack comes from within the Church or from outside the Church, the devil is behind it.

But according to Revelation 2:11, we have nothing to fear because,

III. We Will Overcome

"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches: He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death."

I John 5:4-5, explains who will overcome. "For Whoever is born of God overcomes the World; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcomes the world, but he that believes that Jesus is the Son of God."

Christians have nothing to fear in this world because we who overcome, that is, we who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, will not be hurt by the second death.

Revelation 21:7-8 is a good explanation of Revelation 2:11. It says,

"He that overcometh shall inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers (or drug users), and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."
IV. Conclusion

The letter to Smyrna is a picture of the church under the intense persecutions of the Roman Empire but these persecutions did not destroy the Church. They purified it and as a result the Church became stronger.

This is also a letter of comfort to those who are suffering persecution. Our Lord knows their situation. After all, He faced persecution Himself, to a degree that we never will.

In addition, two things are evident in this letter: The Lord wants us to know that persecution serves to prove faithfulness and for those who prove faithful, a great reward is waiting.

Also, the second death has no claim on those who have overcome through their faith in Christ. For those who trust Christ to save them, physical death is the doorway into His presence, not the beginning of eternity apart from God. Therefore, we should not fear persecution. We should know that it always serves to purge and cleanse the true Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

From "Understanding The Apocalypse"
A book of sermons by Pastor Jim McColloch, Th.M., Th.D.
© Copyright 1994, 1999, 2006