by David C. Grabbe
January 2, 2009
Until recently, we who live in the United States and Canada have had many personal liberties, particularly the freedom to worship God. In the post-World War II era, most other modern Israelitish nations have also enjoyed such freedoms, and thus most in the church of God are not accustomed to widespread or severe persecution. Because it is so rare, it is almost foreign to our thinking. Yet, when compared to the rest of history, this is clearly not the norm.
However, times are changing. As the Western world becomes increasingly secular because of weak Christianity, and as that secularity is, in turn, overcome by stronger cultures and religions (such as Islam), incidences of persecution for righteousness' sake are steadily mounting. From the rejection of prayer and the Ten Commandments in schools to the fining of those who point out what the Bible says about homosexuality, the culture of modern Israelitish nations is becoming increasingly hostile to the Judeo-Christian ethic upon which it once stood. Persecution and tribulation are not yet common, but as the end approaches, we are seeing them increase.
These are not pleasant things to contemplate, but they are a central theme of the letter to one of the end-time churches in Revelation 2-3. As we near the end, we will benefit from examining Christ's words to His church in Smyrna:
These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until 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. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death." (Revelation 2:8-11)
This letter to Smyrna is unique in that it contains no criticism or rebuke. The one to Philadelphia runs a close second in this regard: It contains more praise, but also a slightly negative aspect when Jesus says that they have but a little strength (Revelation 3:7-13). Smyrna's letter contains neither as much praise on the one hand, nor the slightly negative observation on the other.
The letter is also unique in its length, containing just four verses. (In contrast, the letter to Thyatira spans twelve verses.) It is so brief that it almost appears abrupt. Jesus gives neither a lengthy admonition to repent, nor much praise. To use a military metaphor, it resembles a commander's final instructions to his company of Special Forces. They are alreadyfocused and disciplined, aware of what is expected of them, wholeheartedly committed to their duty, and willing to go to their deaths for their cause, if need be. Unlike new recruits or infantry misfits who continually have to be reminded of the basics, these are seasoned veterans. This letter is from the Captain of their salvation to a unit that knows its marching orders and has been following them faithfully. Little needs to be added.
A Theme of Death
The letter to Smyrna also has death as a recurring theme. Death is directly mentioned three times in these four verses, and the name Smyrna contains a probable fourth reference as well. Jesus Christ refers to His own death, points to their death as a finish line, and also mentions the second death. While He is not warning that their deaths are imminent, these references combine to produce a sober message.
Smyrna means "myrrh," a highly valued spice. Many of its uses in Scripture fit with what we know of the church at Smyrna. For example, myrrh was a primary ingredient in the holy anointing oil that God commanded Moses to make (Exodus 30:22-33), which was used to consecrate the Tabernacle, the Ark, two of the altars, all of the utensils, as well as Aaron and his sons. In Smyrna, we likewise see a people who are set apart and consecrated, whose lives are dedicated in service to God despite the cost.
A second use is found in the book of Esther, where the eligible maidens were prepared for twelve months before they were sent to meet the king (Esther 2:12-13). For the first six months of their preparation, they were purified with the oil of myrrh. Looking at this spiritually, myrrh could represent purification before being able to meet the King of kings, Jesus Christ. From what we read of Smyrna, this also parallels their situation.
A third use of myrrh helps to understand why it is linked with death. In Mark's account of the crucifixion, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23). Easton's Bible Dictionary points out that the Jews commonly did this for prisoners because it would render them insensible during their torture. The myrrh used in this concoction is thought to be a species that had many of the characteristics of opium. Here, then, myrrh was a drug given to dull the senses of those who were condemned to death—and Jesus rejected it. Considering Christ's letter to Smyrna in this light, we see a people who may not all actually be condemned to death, but who are still admonished to be faithful until death. Christ set the example of this, rejecting the option of compromise that would have eased His sacrifice.
A fourth use of myrrh also refers to death, as myrrh is a spice used for embalming bodies. More specifically, Nicodemus used it to prepare Christ's body for burial (John 19:39). For this reason, myrrh is often associated with bitter circumstances. Realizing what the people of Smyrna were going through, it is fitting that their name would mean myrrh.
After addressing His letter to the "church of myrrh," Jesus draws attention to the fact that He was dead but "came to life" (Revelation 2:8). In doing this, He encourages them by highlighting His own experience. To this church of bitter circumstances, He says, in essence, "I was martyred too, just as some of you will be. But I was resurrected, and now live eternally." He reminds them that He has overcome death, and that it is not the end (I Corinthians 15:50-57).
In Revelation 2:9, Jesus declares, "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich)." This contrasts directly with the church at Laodicea, which has worldly riches yet is spiritually poor (Revelation 3:17), while those at Smyrna are materially poor yet spiritually rich. God counsels the Laodiceans to buy gold that had been tried in fire, meaning to seek the true riches that come by accepting God's tempering and by rejecting compromise.
However, Christ points out that the Smyrnans are already enduring tribulation—already experiencing pressure, which is what the underlying Greek word literally means. They suffer affliction, anguish, persecution, and trouble. They are already buying the gold, tried in the fire of persecution. Because of their fidelity, they do not take the easy way out when it would mean being unfaithful to God.
"Those Who Say They Are Jews"
Jesus then remarks that He knows "the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." The Greek word for "blasphemy" is primarily used in reference to blasphemy against God, but it can also be used with regard to blasphemy against men. In Matthew 15:19, Ephesians 4:31, and I Timothy 6:4, it means slander, abusive language, or evil speaking—what the King James calls "railing."
Who are these people who say they are Jews, but are not? Jesus also refers to them in His letter to Philadelphia (Revelation 3:9). Remember, these letters are written to the church of God. In His eyes, when there is true faith in Jesus Christ, there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Paul mentions this repeatedly in his epistles (Romans 10:12; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). "Those who say they are Jews" does not refer to physical descent, as there is no spiritual benefit in being of one race or ethnicity. A church member has no spiritual reason to claim—truly or falsely—to be a physical Jew.
The key to this puzzle is found in Romans 2:28-29:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
Applying this to the letters in Revelation, some claim to have a circumcised heart, but they really belong to Satan's assembly. The same situation appears in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30). The wheat and the tares look identical until fruit is produced. At that point, it becomes apparent which is genuine wheat and which is not. Thus, Jesus teaches that we will know people by their fruits (Matthew 7:16-20). Recall also that the workers in the parable are commanded to leave the tares in with the wheat. We see this in Revelation—people with circumcised hearts being troubled by those without them.
In Romans 2:29, Paul provides a trait of those who are converted, and by implication, those who are not. Those with circumcised hearts will have their praise from God. By contrast, those with uncircumcised hearts will seek the praise of men, and what God thinks is an afterthought (see John 12:43). The unconverted are more concerned with the appearance of righteousness before other men than they are with true righteousness before God.
The Pharisees are a good example of this. They made sure that people knew when they were fasting, the frequency and amount of their offerings, and all of their good deeds. They were quite concerned about prestige, honor before men, and the social pecking order. Much of their reasoning process revolved around how things would look or what other people would think. Obviously, these thoughts are not inherently wrong and are often good things to ponder. However, they become wrong when appearance rises higher in priority than righteousness and truthfulness—when it becomes a façade or a pretense.
The members of the Smyrna church, though, are facing persecution because they are more focused on what God thinks than what man thinks. If they sought praise from men—if they wanted to please the people around them—they would not be so readily targeted for persecution. Their beliefs, however, are solid convictions rather than mere preferences, and because carnal man despises the things of God (Romans 8:7), carnal men within—and without—the fellowship persecute them. These pseudo-Jews, as it were, seeking the praise of men rather than God, are verbally cutting down the converted members. Jesus says that He is aware of it—He sees what His people suffer—and He will make it right in His own time.
In Revelation 2:10, He begins instructing them. First, He encourages, "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer." He does not say He will take away the suffering, tacitly acknowledging that they will suffer. He is admonishing them to reorient their focus so that they fear Him rather than their circumstances. Revelation 21:8 says that the fearfuland the unbelieving will go into the Lake of Fire, and this happens because they fear the wrong things. Thus, they have no part with God.
As mentioned earlier, in many ways, what Revelation 2:10 describes is entirely foreign to us, yet many passages warn us that God's people will face tribulation. Peter writes, "Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you" (I Peter 4:12). We are so unaccustomed to persecution that we do indeed think it strange, but Paul tells Timothy, "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (II Timothy 3:12).
Jesus warns us that we will be hated by all for His name's sake (Matthew 10:22), even delivered up to tribulation and death (Matthew 24:9). He prophesies that the time will come when whoever kills God's people will think he does God a service (John 16:2). John 16:33 is both cautionary and encouraging: "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
In Revelation 2:10, Jesus says that the Devil is about to throw some of them into prison to test them. A test perpetrated by Satan may not make much sense to men. It may not be over anything as dramatic as keeping the Sabbath or holy days or refusing the Mark of the Beast. It could simply be that, because the society has become so litigious and the civil law so overbearing, these saints become entangled without actually having done anything wrong. Nevertheless, as a test of their faith, God will allow Satan to jail them, for whatever reason—legitimate or not. God does this so that He and they know where their convictions stand—to see if they will compromise to ease their captivity, to see if they will remain faithful to God and His truth, and to see if they will trust Him even in tough times. It is during tumultuous times like the present that a person's character is revealed.
However, God is also merciful, telling Smyrna that its tribulation will be of limited duration. The church there can expect persecution and tribulation, but God has set limits on it, just as He did for Job (Job 2:6). He will not allow His saints to be tempted—proved, tried—beyond what they can bear (I Corinthians 10:13).
"Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life," He says to conclude Revelation 2:10. Because this follows right on the heels of the Devil throwing some of them into prison, it almost sounds as if they will be in prison for ten days and then die, but it need not mean this at all. His exhortation to be faithful until death is universal, not just applicable for those thrown into prison. Whether we, like the apostle John, are allowed to die a natural death at an advanced age or, like Stephen, suffer martyrdom shortly after conversion, the command is the same: We must be faithful to our last breath. We cannot rest on the fact that we were faithful last year or last decade. Our faithfulness should be strong right to the finish line.
If we maintain our faithfulness, Christ gives us a crown of life. He similarly admonishes the church at Philadelphia to "hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown" (Revelation 3:11). Paul calls it an "imperishable crown" (I Corinthians 9:25) and a "crown of righteousness" given "to all those who have loved and yearned for and welcomed His appearing (His return)" (II Timothy 4:8, Amplified Bible). James adds, "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him" (James 1:12, English Standard Version).
Second Death Powerless
Jesus adds that, if we are overcoming—overcoming the pulls of the flesh, overcoming the temptations of this world, overcoming the influence of Satan—the second death will have no power over us (Revelation 2:11). The second death is the final fate of those who have died once, been resurrected in the second resurrection, and given the opportunity to know the Father and the Son, but who then demonstrate through their decisions and conduct that they do not want to live eternally with them.
Faithful members of God's church may experience the first death—even violently—but the second death will not harm them because they will be given immortality, which God alone has at this point (see I Corinthians 15:53-54, I Timothy 6:15-16, II Timothy 1:10). This promise corresponds to Revelation 20:6: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (see also Revelation 20:11-15 and 21:7-8 for more details about the second death). Thus, a letter with the theme of death ends with the promise of life.
The letter to Smyrna is a short and concise line in the sand for all of us. It should move us to evaluate where our convictions truly lie and to question whether we are prone to compromise. It should remind us that God does not guarantee us an easy life, no matter how righteous we are—look at what happened to God Himself when He became a Man. This letter should stir us to reexamine our priorities and to set our wills to remain faithful to the very end, no matter what form it may take and what it might cost.