Sermon: Letters to Seven Churches (Part Three): Smyrna
Sheep to the Slaughter
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Given 19-Jan-19; 69 minutes
There is a solid principle in Scripture, perhaps most easily seen in Matthew 13 and Mark 4, when Jesus is giving the parables. But this principle teaches that God speaks in His Word to those to whom it has been given "to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven." The last part is a direct quote from what Jesus said there. As Jesus says in Matthew 13 and Mark 4, He speaks to the rest of the world in parables, and He said the reason He does this is because, though they they can see Him in that way and hear Him, they do not truly understand His message. He codes His messages in these parables, He speaks to them in these illustrations so that those people whom He does not want to understand, will not understand.
Our eyes, though, our ears, if you will, have been blessed because we have received the Holy Spirit. So now we can see and we can hear and we can understand. He goes on to say, there in Matthew 13, we are being healed. That is, we are being spiritually changed, so that we are more like Him and less like the world.
If you will please turn with me to John the 10th chapter. I want to expand this out just a little bit so you understand what what He is teaching here. But I want to use a different set of scriptures to come at it from a little bit different angles. We are going to be in John 10 in a very important section for those of us who have been called as part of His elect.
John 10:23-27 And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon's porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, "How long do you keep us in doubt? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." [They wanted Him to say, "I am the Christ. I am your Messiah."] But Jesus answered them, "I told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me."
He is telling them essentially the same thing that He told His disciples in Matthew 13. But Jesus puts it more positively here. In a way, the Jews wanted Him to come out plainly and just come right out and say, "I am the Christ." But Jesus responds, "I have told you." He had spoken similar words and made it plain and He, of course, said that His work spoke for Him. But He says to them, "You simply don't believe Me." That was the problem. And then He goes on to say, "You cannot believe Me because you're not My called and chosen people." I put a little bit different way. But had He put it the way I just said it, that would have really shocked them. As Jews, they thought they were the chosen people, but He is telling them here, "You're not. You're not My chosen people, not in this spiritual way. I've called others and given them the ability to understand, and you're not among those others."
So He says there in verse 27, which is one of our mottos in the Church of the Great God, His elect hear Him and He knows them and they follow Him. Very important, what He says here. This is a very significant statement about the relationship between Christ and the individual members of His church. But He illustrates it in terms of the interactions between a shepherd and his sheep just to keep it on a simple level that they could understand.
We lack the time to go into all the nuances of this. But suffice it to say, He is describing a reciprocal relationship. Reciprocal is very important here. A reciprocal relationship in which both parties contribute actively to the bond between them. Now notice, He says, they hear Me, My sheep hear Me. So that presupposes something that God did—He spoke. So that is one interaction there. He spoke, they heard.
The next thing is He, in turn, knows them, and that covers a large spectrum of things that He does. First of all, by Him knowing us, it means that He knows us intimately. He knows us thoroughly. It also means that He acknowledges us as His and it progresses all the way through His instructing us, His caring for us, His guiding us, His correcting us, His perfecting us, all the way throughout the entire relationship to giving us eternal life, bringing us into His Kingdom. That is all kind of encapsulated under that word that He knows us, because He is intimately involved with us. And our response to all this work that He is doing in our behalf in terms of knowing us, is to follow Him.
So we have a process here of one doing one thing, one doing another, they are doing them in harmony or in response to one another and it is going to produce something good, because everything that God does produces good. And this is the way He has decided to set up people to enter His Kingdom. He calls them, He speaks to them, they hear Him, they understand. We can add to this that it probably means also that they believe Him. You can hear Him all you want. That was the problem the Jews had. They would listen to Him, but they would not believe, but His sheep listen to Him and believe, and in turn, because they believe, then Jesus Christ and God the Father go in full bore helping us all along the way. And when we see that help, what do we do? We follow Him along the way to the Kingdom of God. So we see a relationship here.
This is how communication is supposed to work between two people. It is an interaction. One with another, one says something, one responds. That is simple communication theory, that it is a two-way process, a two-way street. Call it a back-and-forth, or a give-and-take. That is what is happening here. The participation of two parties in an activity, a lot of which involves communication, and in our life as Christians, as we are walking toward the Kingdom of God, this process takes place continuously. It does not just happen at the beginning, when we are called, that we hear Him. We believe, he does a few things, and then we follow.
This is happening all the time throughout our conversion, when we hear something that we have not heard before and we have to put it through our minds, believe it, and then once we believe that, Christ says okay, now he knows this thing. We need to do this to help perfect him along the way. And once we do that, we look at the results, and we continue to follow Him. If this is happening all the time throughout our conversion, it must never stop. It should happen all the way until our last breath, our last thought, that this process is continuing as we grow in this relationship with Jesus Christ.
So getting back to my subject that I have been going through in this series so far. As the book closes, as He is giving, let us say, His final instructions that He wants to put in the Bible, our High Priest, our Savior, the One who is guiding us along this way, sends us a final personal communication, which we call the letters to the seven churches. And in those seven letters, He provides us with necessary evaluation, instruction, praise, and sometimes correction so that we can endure to the end and be saved. Remember, the subject of the book of Revelation is the Day of the Lord, when things are at their worst, and there is going to be a time when that comes and His people need to be ready. So He writes these letters to give them what they need to be ready for this time. It is right at the beginning of the of this particular book, so that when all these things come to pass, His people are prepared for the roles they must play within that period of time.
So what He does is He gives us this instruction in Revelation 2 and Revelation 3 so that we can use His help and His guidance to follow Him in a faithful, fruitful, sanctifying way, even though the world is going to hell in a handbasket outside. Remember this idea of hearing Him and really paying heed to what He has to say, is what God the Father said to Jesus when He was transfigured. "This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!" That is the command, "Hear Him," that starts the process going, and then it goes through those other parts of the process.
That is what we need to keep in mind as we are going through these letters to the seven churches. We need to hear what He has to say because He is our teacher. He is our friend. He is our King and our Savior. He is our High Priest. No one knows the way before better than Him. He is the Trailblazer, the Archegos, who has gone before. He knows the trail. He knows the twists and turns of the trail. He knows the pitfalls. He knows the traps. He knows the wild beasts. He knows everything along the way, that trail, to the Kingdom of God. And if we stay behind Him, follow Him, is that not one of the things in this process? If we stay behind Him we will make it to the Kingdom of God. But we have to listen to His instructions, which He gives us in the letters to the seven churches, just in case we need them, and we probably will need them at some point in our lives.
So we are going to be continuing this series. This is Part Three of our studying the letters to the seven churches. We are going to pick up where we left off last time with the letter to Smyrna. But before we do, I want to remind you that we are not looking at these letters prophetically, maybe a little bit will sneak in every once in a while, but we are looking at them literally, as real letters, as epistles to churches and to church members, the church groups.
We are keeping the focus away from the prophecy. However, people have different interpretations of the kind of prophecies you get out of these letters. We are going to leave that to the side and look at them as real encouraging, or critical, or what have you, letters from Jesus Christ to us, to individual people. We are going to cover them like we would cover an epistle of Paul. If we were going to read Galatians and get the information out of Galatians that we need, this is how we would do it, the same way we are going to cover these letters. We have to look at these letters as heartfelt essential instruction from a shepherd to His sheep. From a pastor to a member of his church.
Let us go back to Revelation 2. And before we go into them any deeper, I want to just go ahead and read the whole section. The letter to Smyrna is only four versus long, but there is a lot in there. Here we go.
Revelation 2:8-11 "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, '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 to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death."'
Pretty simple letter. But we need to understand a little bit of background on Smyrna itself and the church there, so I am going to give you a little bit of a Dictionary of the Bible part of the sermon so you understand where these people lived, what their environment was like.
Smyrna is a city in Asia Minor. It is modern Izmir, Turkey, and at the time in the first century, it was quite a large city. About a quarter of a million people lived in Smyrna. It was a busy coastal town, had a very nice harbor that was kind of inland and out of the weather there in the Aegean Sea. It had a little bit of an inlet that came into the harbor so this was a protected harbor. By the way, if you were looking at a map, Smyrna would be about 50 miles north along the coast from Ephesus. So you have Ephesus down here in the middle and then Smyrna is going up toward the north.
In the first century, the city of Smyrna was known for its temples to Zeus and to Cybele. Cybele, I believe, is the mother goddess, if you will. They were also known for the Imperial Cult Temple to Tiberius Caesar. By the way, I should just mention that the Smyrnans were very loyal to the Roman Empire. They were one of the first cities in in Asia Minor to pledge their loyalty to Rome when they started to grow, they started to take over the certain areas around them, and they never stopped. They were loyal to the end of the empire. So this gives you an idea of the, let us just say, the local flavor of the town. It was a very loyal city to Rome. And this has implications in the letter to Smyrna. I should also mention that it was well known for its tie-in to Homer, the one who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. Supposedly Homer was born in Smyrna, and they had a shrine to him there. If they were up on their home, they were very well educated in their classical Greek history.
Smyrna was considered to be, far and wide, one of the finest cities of Asia. It vied with Ephesus and Pergamos as some of the greatest cities in Asia Minor. It was called "The Lovely, The Crown of Ionia, the Ornament of Asia." So it was a beautiful city. That is what it was known for. The geographer and historian Strabo wrote that it "was the most beautiful of all."
The city featured well-planned paved streets, a library, gymnasium, and it had a lot of well built, symmetrical buildings. I do not know if you know, but the Greeks had an eye for lovely architecture and the symmetry of things. I do not know how many you went to Nashville and saw the the Temple of Athena there, but it is beautiful in its proportions. And when the classical mind looked at the city of Smyrna, it saw that. It saw all those wonderful proportions of the city from the buildings that were built there. And when they stepped back and looked at the city from a distance, they thought the city of Smyrna looked like a crown. That is why it was called the Crown of Ionia. It was just a beautiful city to look upon and people loved to live there.
Smyrna is the Greek word for myrrh, the aromatic gum or the resin that is used as a perfume or as incense or as an embalming agent, and some people use it as medicine. You can get an essential oil made of myrrh. People have been using it for a long, long time. I do not know what it necessarily has to do with this particular letter, but this particular letter deals with martyrdom and death. And so maybe it is apropos.
The city also had a large and very wealthy Jewish population that was quite antagonistic towards the smaller and much poorer Christian church there. Polycarp, you may have heard his name, was a Christian martyr. He was the bishop or the pastor of the church in Smyrna and he was for a long time. I think he was appointed to it in the first decade of the second century and he was pastor there for probably about 45-50 years. So long-time pastor of that church. He was burned at the stake on, we actually know what day, February, the 23rd, 155 BC. He was burned at the stake because he refused to deny the name of Jesus Christ. The procurator or whoever was the governor there, had given him the option. You deny Christ and live or do not deny Christ and die. And he said, "Well, I'll die then." He would not deny Jesus Christ.
This little bit here tells you just how cruel and hateful the Jews were at that time in Smyrna. Showing their animosity for Christianity, Jews were foremost in gathering wood for the fire that would burn Polycarp, even though it was Sabbath. So they would prefer to break the Sabbath just to stick it to the Christians there in Smyrna. That comes obviously into play in the letter here in Revelation 2.
Let us look at verse 8.
Revelation 2:8 "To the angel of the church in Smyrna write, 'These things says the First and the Last, who was dead and came to life.'
Jesus introduces Himself here with the description pulled from His glorious appearance there in chapter 1, verses 17 and 18. This aligns perfectly with the theme for this letter to the Smyrnans. The theme of this letter is death and life through resurrection. So when Jesus introduces Himself in the salutation to the Smyrnans, He is talking to them as the One who died and came to life again, the One who was First and Last. He is eternal. He lives forever, and even though He was dead, He rose again. Let us go back and read those verses in Revelation 1.
Revelation 1:17-18 And when I saw Him [this John speaking], I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, "Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death."
This is what He wants the Smyrnans to go back and reflect on. The fact that He died. He was martyred. He went through a cruel beating and crucifixion and He died. But He died believing that His Father would raise Him from the dead. He died sinlessly, obviously. He died righteously. And what happened? He was raised from the dead. He conquered death. His life went through death. And now he has the keys. He holds the control of death and of the grave. So if they remember that, the Smyrnans I mean, what He has been through and what He has power over, then they could approach their time on this earth properly, with the right focus in mind.
This title, the First and the Last, actually comes from the Old Testament. It does not appear first in Revelation but it goes all the way back to Isaiah. I would like to turn there.
Isaiah 44:6-8 "Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: 'I am the First and I am the Last; besides Me there is no God. And who can proclaim as I do? Then let him declare it and set it in order for Me, since I appointed the ancient people. And the things that are coming and shall come, let them show these to them. Do not fear, nor be afraid: have I not told you from that time, and declared it? You are My witnesses. Is there a God besides Me? Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one.'"
He is trying to get them to understand all of these concepts in this phrase, "I am the First and the Last." Christ is letting the Smyrnans know that He is God and He has the power of God. Remember Matthew 28:19-20. He says, "all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Me." He has that power. He has the power of the Father that He can use to guide and direct His church and to help His people make it into the Kingdom of God. He is their King. He is their Redeemer. He loves them. And He is also the Lord of hosts. He has got a great army that He rules and can send at His whim. So if He has the strength to do all these things, why should we doubt that He can do what is right and good and bring us through even death? The One who is for us, He is telling them, the One who is for you is much stronger than all of those who are against you put together—by far! So He is telling these Smyrnans that they do not need to worry. He has got their back. He has got all the power in the universe to help them as needed.
He also says there that He is the "one who was dead and came to life." He has conquered death. He was the first one to be resurrected in this way. He, as it were, blazed the trail through resurrection. They have His example and He is alive for everyone. Death did not stop Him. When He came back, He was greater than He was before, because God had given Him everything back that He had had to leave behind in heaven when He was a man. He is also the one that gives us life. He is the one that will raise us up. He is the one that will give us eternal life. So He is the eternal Life-giver.
All these things that He is saying here in this little salutation and introduction of Himself, is reassuring for those people who come under it. If we were under attack, if we were persecuted, these words would be a comfort for us. If we were to look through the attack to the Kingdom of God and say, "If I'm going to endure to the end, this is what I've got to trust in." So these people, the Smyrnans, this poor church there in Smyrna, they knew that they were suffering persecution. They had been experiencing it a little bit, and Jesus is saying it is going to get worse, not better. So hearing these things must have made them feel that they were in good hands. They could endure. A hard thing to think about. But these are the words that Jesus Christ spoke, identifying Himself so that they would have faith, that they would have hope, even though they were suffering persecution and that they would suffer martyrdom. Now I call, my own nickname for the Smyrnans is, Sheep to the Slaughter.
(I have to commend Ryan for singing hymn number 35 today, "Awake, Oh Eternal," because that is one of the places where that phrase comes from, sheep to the slaughter that we sang there. It is just interesting how God puts those things together.)
Let us go to Romans 8 just for a moment. This is kind of the idea of what Christ is trying to get across by using these terms.
Romans 8:10-11 If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
He is saying, "Yes, you're going to go through some hard times, but if you endure to the end, if you remain faithful, you're going to be raised to life just as I was and the life that you are going to have is far superior to the one that you gave up for My sake."
Back to Revelation 2. Let us go to the next verse. Jesus said, as He does to all of them in all the letters:
Revelation 2:9 "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."
Smyrna is the only church among the seven that does not receive even a hint of criticism. Even Philadelphia has a little bit of criticism there when He tells them you have a little faith. But He does not say that to the Smyrnans. Evidently, the Smyrnans were quite faithful and they were quite righteous people, so He does not criticize them at all. He tells them He sees their works and they are good works. He sees their troubles also, their tribulations and trials, and He sees their poverty. Now, this is an interesting word. It is ptocheia. I do not know. It is a hard Greek word to say. But this word means the abject poverty of a beggar. They just were not "not well off." They were poor, poor to the point of begging in the streets almost.
And it is probably implied here that their poverty was the result of the tribulation. "I know your works" meaning they were faithful members. I know your trials, your tribulations, and I know your poverty. It just goes one to another. The reason they were having trouble was because of their good works and their Christianity and the reason they were poor is because they were being oppressed in the city. Probably because the Jews were wealthy and in control of a lot of the businesses and such, they had a hard time getting jobs, the Christians there in Smyrna did. Also because the Smyrnans were so loyal to the Roman government and worshipped the emperor cult, if the people in the church did not give a sacrifice to the emperor or say a pledge that they were loyal to the emperor calling him a god, then they were probably likely not going to get a job with the Romans either. So they were betwixt and between. They could only do what they could do, and so they were poor, very poor.
But Jesus recognizes that truly they are spiritually rich. That is what it means when He says He knows their "poverty (but you are rich)." The way He looked at them, He saw that they had spiritual riches coming out of their ears. Thus, no criticism. They are faithful, they are persevering. They do good works, obviously. They do what is right. And He recognized that and pats them on the back. "You're spiritually rich," which is exactly the opposite of what He says to the Laodiceans. The Laodiceans are physically rich, but spiritually wretched and poor and blind and naked. Quite a contrast here between the Smyrnans and the Laodiceans, and the Smyrnans were the ones that we need to emulate more than the Laodiceans, for sure.
So from the little that He says here, it is only four verses long, what we get as a description of the Smyrnans, is that they seem to have been doing pretty much everything right. They are a good group of people, they were doing things right, especially in terms of their loyalty and faithfulness to Christ. Remember I started all this talking about the relationship and the communication process between a sheep and a shepherd, between us and Christ, and we get the idea from the Smyrnans that they were actually doing this process right. They heard Him. They followed Him and He was helping them along the way as much as He could. And so they would be excellent martyrs, if you will, excellent witnesses, of His way of life, of His people. I mean, we kind of smirk at that a little bit and say that seems kind of sad, that that is the way it has to be. But these people were qualified spiritually to be excellent martyrs for Him, to suffer for His sake.
But the Smyrnans were beset on every side it looks like, most particularly by these blaspheming Jews. Now, because of what we know, what I told you about literal Smyrna in the first century, these were really Jews. You know, different prophetic interpretations of this make different interpretations of who these Jews are. But in the case of the Smyrnans, they were almost certainly really Jews—Jews by birth, Jews by religion. The way Jesus puts this about the blaspheming and the "those who say they are Jews and are not," makes us think about John 8. And I want to go back to John 8 because Jesus had an argument with the Jews about identity, His identity and their identity. So let us go back to there and we can see how these two could be connected. Meaning John 8 and the argument there and what Jesus puts in the letter to the Smyrnans.
John 8:37 "I know that you are Abraham's descendants [This is Jesus speaking], but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you."
Notice that they they were not listening to Him. He was speaking, but they were not hearing. Remember that was the first bit of the reciprocal relationship communication that needs to be done here. And Jesus says right off the bat, "I know that you are Abraham's descendants, but you're not listening. My word doesn't have a place in you because you will not hear it."
John 8:38-41 "I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father." They answered and said to Him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. [Abraham was a true child of God. He would have heard. He would have responded properly.] You do the deeds of your father." Then they said to Him, "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God."
Which is a jibe against Him. That was what was going around, that He was a bastard Son by Mary. That He had some other father. But they say we have one Father—God. They were pure. Their lineage was pure, whereas His was defiled.
John 8:42-47 Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. [They did not have the switch turned on, if you will. God had not given them the ability to hear. Why?] You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears My words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God."
They said they were Jews, but they were not. Not the way that Jesus was thinking of it. So He acknowledges that they are descendants of Abraham physically, they descended from him, they are his seed. But their words and behavior reveal that their true father is Satan. Very similar to what He says there in Revelation 2:9. "Who say they are Jews and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan."
Now that is kind of an interesting way to put it, that they were of the synagogue of Satan. You know that in just about every case, and especially I want to point out Matthew 4:23, which is the first occasion the word synagogue appears in the Bible. It means the Jews' synagogue. It says there the phrase, He preached in their synagogues. The word synagogue in the Bible almost always means the Jews' synagogue. Jesus does a play on words and calls it a synagogue of Satan, a synagogue of this world, if you will, influenced by Satan. It is not God's. It is not Christ's. It has always been of the Jews.
See, the Christians did not have synagogues. What did the Christians have? They had gatherings of people—ecclesia. They did not call their meetings the same way as the Jews did. Jews met in a synagogue, Christians were called together and ecclesia, the called-out ones.
Let us take this a little bit further. Let us go to Romans 9 because I want to develop this a little bit this idea of who the Jews actually were that He is talking about here in Revelation 2:9, and who the real Jews were.
Romans 9:6-8 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, "In Isaac your seed shall be called." That is, those who are children of the flesh [That is, physical Israelites] these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. [Those children that were promised to Abraham through Isaac spiritually.]
Let us go on to Galatians 4. He really expands this in the book of Galatians.
Galatians 4:28-29 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.
Now remember who persecuted whom? It was Ishmael who persecuted Isaac. And with the next generation, it was Esau that persecuted Jacob, in a way. So he is saying here that the the ones who are children of promise are often persecuted by those who may be the literal descendants but are not children of promise. They are children of what? Let us see how far I want to go here. All the way to the end of the chapter.
Galatians 4:30-31 Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman." [Talking about Ishmael and Isaac here.] So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.
And then let us go to chapter 6 and verse 16. He kind of finishes his thought here.
He is making a separation here. Those who have been given God's Spirit are the children of promise, and they are the new Israel. The new Jews, as it were. They are spiritual Jews, and they are the ones that God is working with. The physical Jews, the ones that were persecuting the Smyrnans, they thought there were children of the promise, but they were not. They were actually, as Jesus said in John 8, the children of Satan. He had given them over to their reprobate mind, as Paul talks in Romans 1, and they had gone their own way.
They are under bondage to their physical works, for their works-oriented interpretation of the law and to all the non-biblical additions that they put into their religion. So, Judaism, to God, is a pagan religion. It is a religion of this earth. You could even say it is a religion of Satan, even though it has its basis in the Old Testament, in the law of Moses. We could say the same thing about various types of Christianity which we know have been infused, syncretized with pagan things. They are not God's people, they are not His, those are not His religions. Only the ones who hear Him and follow Him are His, the ones He has called out, the ones who have received His Spirit, the ones He is guiding by the Spirit.
So the Jews are not free, really. They think they are. But he says, they are children of the bondwoman, they are under bondage. We are free because we have been given grace, we have been given forgiveness, we have been given the right way to live. But they are stuck in their persistent mode of persecuting the truth. They are stuck in their doing the wrong things, following this wrong religion. They do not have the freedom to come out of it until, or unless, God calls them.
Since the Jews, the vast majority of Jews, have rejected Christ and His gospel, God has committed them all to disobedience. If you want, that is Romans 11:32. Paul writes there, "God has committed them all to disobedience," and they were just showing their disobedience there to the Smyrnans in their persecution. And they will stay under that disobedience until a better time, when He could have mercy on them. That is basically what he says there as Romans 11 finishes up. So until that time and into eternity, those who are Christ's are the true Jews, the Israel of God.
As I said, those who hear Him and follow Him, those are the real Jews. And so He has to make a distinction here in the letter to the Smyrnans. They say they are Jews, but they are not. They say they are God's people, but they are not. They are just part of this world.
Let us go on to verse 10 in Revelation 2.
Revelation 2:10 [He says] "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."
In this way, Jesus sets up the realization for them that they are caught in the middle of an age old battle between God and Satan. Here they are following Christ and they are being persecuted by the followers of Satan the Devil. And He makes it very clear in this verse that there will be casualties and the casualties are them, unfortunately. They are the ones that have been caught between the hammer and the anvil.
So, what to do? First of all, He encourages them not to fear the suffering that is coming. I should interpose a verse in Luke at this point. Let me just read it to get all the verbiage right.
Luke 12:32 "Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
God, throughout His Book, when angels appear and give announcements, almost the first thing they always say is, "Don't be afraid, don't fear." Even though they were being shocked out of their minds by this appearance of this great being, He says, "Don't fear." And now Jesus has shocked these people by saying "You are going to suffer greatly. But do not fear. I've got your back. I've got you in the palm of My hand here, you are the apple of My eye. I will make sure that even though this is a grizzly thing, you will live through it, as it were, by the resurrection from the dead."
He wants them to know that they can go through this very terrible time with faith and hope, and a good attitude and positivity, for what is on the other side. They could face it and they can endure it if they remember that God is well-pleased with them. It is His good pleasure to give them the Kingdom and He wants to give them eternal life. All they need to do is endure, endure faithfully. He will give them the Kingdom of God and eternal life in it. I have a note here to read a verse in II Corinthians 4. This is the mindset that they have to have.
II Corinthians 4:16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart [Paul says]. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
He is telling them, by telling them not to fear, to look at these things from an eternal perspective, and it will really help you as you try to endure. But they would face imprisonment soon. He tells them, "Look" or behold, I do not know what your version has. My version here, the New King James says "Indeed," which is a pretty poor translation, if you ask me. He says, "Behold, the devil is about to put some of you in prison," and that "look" is very important. Look, or behold, is a command to be aware, a command to be alert, to pay attention. If they would do this, if they would be alert and pay attention, they could be prepared for what is coming—as well as any person could be prepared for that sort of thing. And perhaps by being prepared, they could mitigate some of their troubles. That it will not be as bad as they think it could be. If nothing else, they would not be caught by surprise. They would be ready.
He also tells them here that they are to think of this as a test. Satan had come to test them. Satan was trying to tempt them into apostasy but God is using their troubles as a test of their faith, or of their loyalty, or their faithfulness, so they they should look at it in a positive way. It is a way that they could prove to God that they are faithful and that they will endure to the end. This idea is found in many places throughout Scripture.
James 1:2-4 [He says] My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience [or endurance]. But let patience [or endurance] have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
And back to I Peter 1 (or rather forward). He has been talking about they are given the Kingdom of God and eternal life in it.
I Peter 1:6-7 [He says] In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Back to the book of Romans. I just picked out a few of these just to give you a taste of the Bible's teaching on it.
Romans 5:3-4 [He says] And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope.
So God is using this as a way to build them up and perfect them for the Kingdom. Finally, in I Corinthians 10.
I Corinthians 10:13 [Paul writes] No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
And by putting these people front and center for persecution and martyrdom, He had evaluated them and judged them worthy of being able to bear such a terrible fate, if you will. They were ready. He knew they could do it. He would not have given this to them if they could not, so they just needed to hold on, to persevere, to endure to the end, and they would be saved as He had promised them in the Gospels.
Now, looking forward to imprisonment alone was not an easy thing in the first century. Imprisonment was a terrible thing. It was dreadful to contemplate. In the first century, conditions were abysmal. Food was poor or even nonexistent. In many cases, the food had to be supplied by the person who was being jailed, or by his family. Brutal beatings were frequent. Remember, they beat Paul several times just for being put in jail. They beat Christ even before He received the death sentence. They said, "Okay, we'll just beat Him and let Him go." I think Pilate said that one time and the Jews said no, we want Him to have death. And unless you are a Roman citizen, you have no rights.
So being told that you were going to go to prison was almost a death sentence in itself. The Romans would imprison people to subdue a rebel, or to hold a person awaiting trial, or to confine him before execution. In the context here, where He says, "Be faithful until death," there in Revelation 2:10, more than suggests that their imprisonment would be a confinement ending in martyrdom. That they should not expect to be freed.
This ten days of tribulation that is mentioned here could mean a lot of things. It could be ten literal days, it could mean ten years. The first mention of the phrase "ten days" occurs in Genesis 24:55 and it just means a limited time. So I like that one the best. Another way you could look at it is that we have a base ten system. Our numbers are based on one through ten, zero through nine, or however you want to put it. And so ten days would be a full ten. It would mean complete or a full or complete time.
The Bible uses it in this way, the number ten, a lot. There are ten commandments. that is the complete list of God's commandments, as it were. There are ten horns and ten kings so that they are the complete enemy of God here. Ten toes on the statue, etcetera. Noah was the tenth generation before the Flood. So God gave a complete time, ten generations for humanity to prove or disprove its character. The one I like best, though, is found in Daniel. If you want to just jot down Daniel 1:11-20. Daniel was tested. Remember, he told them, "I'll eat vegetables for ten days," and the guy said, "No, you will be sickly and weak." And Daniel said, "No, test us ten days," and after ten days, being faithful to God's law, they were found healthy and worthy, and they were promoted to serve the king.
So if this is kind of lingering in the background, the ideas that the Smyrnans would have said, "Okay, we have ten days to prove ourselves. We have this period of time to prove ourselves worthy, and then we will serve the king like Daniel did," but in the Kingdom of God, not Nebuchadnezzar. And so it was encouraging to them to say, "Look, we can do this if Daniel did it. If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did this and were rewarded, we can do it too."
He says, "Be faithful until death" or become faithful until death. That makes it pretty clear that the trial that they were facing would be fatal. If nothing else, knowing beforehand that they were going to go through this, kept them from false hope. they would, like Peter would say, they would gird up their loins and they would prepare to endure to the end. While this may seem a little bit cruel to us in our pampered state, it was not to them. Christ telling them of this was a mercy and help so that they can stand behind their convictions, and stand behind the promise of eternal life in the resurrection if they remain faithful.
Christ tells them that they would receive the crown of life. Obviously, this is the connection with the city looking like a crown.
James 1:12 [It says] Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who loved Him.
This was something that that they could refer to by when He said that they would receive the crown of life.
Crown, which is in Greek, the word that gives us the name Stephen, Stefanos, in the Greco-Roman world, was most often not a crown like we think it, a metal crown, a diadem that a king would wear. But mostly the crown in that time was a woven wreath of branches or greenery of some sort. And it was a sign of honor given to people of high status. Not just to kings and governors, but also to victors in prominent athletic contests. It could be a simple adornment that somebody would wear, but it could also be a prize for a certain achievement. It could be a reward that someone was given for doing something of great heroism. It can also be a source of pride. Solomon says that the gray hair is the crown of a man. And Paul, I think, said that a woman's long hair was a crown to her, something along that line. A source of pride, a source of of glory.
In Revelation 2:10, the stefanos, the crown there, contains elements of all of those things. It is an honor to be given a crown of life. It is showing great status, as we will be kings and priests. It shows adornment that will glorify us. And it is also a reward for good works and proper righteousness. So the reward itself that is given is not just a wreath of greenery. The reward is life. It is just put in this way, that the reward is eternal life and all that comes with it. The kind of life that God lives.
Like I said, it may be an allusion to the description of Smyrna as looking like a crown. But even though they grew up and lived in the city that was so beautiful, God is intimating here that your living conditions and your life in the Kingdom of God is even going to be greater, much greater than it was in this physical city. You are going to have not Smyrna, where you faced all your persecution, but you will have the New Jerusalem to live in and actually be a ruler there and and you will have a life lived there that is so much better than you have in this life. The only thing they had to do was remain faithful.
Here He repeats the "he who has an ear" command meaning that if you have been enlightened by the Spirit, if you have been called and chosen and your mind has been opened up to His truth, you need to listen to this instruction from Christ, because you do not know where your life is going to end. You do not know what God has before you on the trail, so you need to have these things in your mind so that you could call upon them in time of need. Records of Polycarp's martyrdom explicitly say that Polycarp there in 155 AD, took great comfort in this letter. The letter to Smyrna found in Revelation 2:8-11 during the time leading to his death. It could be an eternal lifesaver for us too if such a thing should ever happen to us in that way.
He who overcomes, or he who conquers, or he who is victorious statement of rewards, echoes and expands on the reward in verse 10, where they were to be given a crown of life—this expands on it— merely states the promise of eternal life in the negative. You will not be hurt by the second death. Obviously, He is talking about the Lake of Fire. We will not go to Revelation 20:14 but it very specifically says there that the Lake of Fire is the second death or the second death is the Lake of Fire, and then it repeats it in chapter 21, verse 8.
So, He says there is only two ultimate ends here. You will either be given the crown of life or you will be given the second death. But He is promising these people that they will get the crown of life. That second death will not touch them, it will not hurt them at all because they are faithful. He who endures to the end, will be saved.
I do want to look at this word "hurt" just for a second here. It is the word adikethe. It seems to suggest a way for the Smyrnans to think of their martyrdom, or to think of their persecutions. It is a hurt. It is an injury. But not unto death. Not unto the second death. Their real life—eternal life with God in His Kingdom—was guaranteed if they remain faithful and overcome by enduring to the end.
Matthew 10:28 [His words to His disciples] "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."
We have reached the end of the letter to Smyrna. I just want to, as we close, think about an interesting contrast between the Ephesians and the Smyrnans. While the Ephesians fight false apostles, false doctrines, Jesus says they become hardened and fall from their former high state. Christ commands them to repent, do the first works, and threatens to remove their lampstand if they do not. In contrast, the Smyrnans, faced with terrible opposition and martyrdom, submit to God's will for them in faith and are victorious. Christ says nothing about repentance and makes no threats to the Smyrnans. Which group do you think God is more pleased with? The Ephesians or the Smyrnans?
As we close, I would just like to read to you from I Peter 5.
I Peter 5:6-11 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.