8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
There are some haunting images of the city of Smyrna (known today as Izmir) from 1922. In that year, after Smyrna had been batted around in the aftermath of World War I by the Greeks and the Turks, a great and devastating fire broke out. Pictures of Smyrna in flames are the haunting images I am speaking of. Mike Pole writes of the fire:
Several American and Empire ships were in the Smyrna harbour but were under orders not to intervene as this would ‘breach neutrality’. They watched, and photographed, the developing disaster. As the city erupted into flames behind them, thousands of Greek/Armenian/Christian civilians massed on the waterfront, along a strip called ‘The Quay’. The heat from the burning city grew so great that luggage and even horses caught fire, and could be felt on the ships in the harbour.
At the same time, either local civilians or elements of the Turk army (or both) killed and raped, and small boats over-full of panicking people capsized, and people drowned. A minimum of 10,000 people died, more likely several times that. Eventually the moral values of some naval personnel over-rode their orders and they started picking up survivors from the water.
The one picture in particular of the people of Smyrna crammed onto The Quay is, to me, in many ways, an apt picture of what the Christians of Smyrna must have felt around 1800 years prior: the threat of fiery death behind and the danger of the impassable sea ahead. To judge by our text, many of them must have felt trapped just as these poor folks were in 1922.
Sometimes I wonder if we understand just how overwhelmed these first century Christians must have felt. Scott Duvall observes that “according to one estimation the total population of the Roman Empire in the late first century was sixty million, of which five million were Jews and fifty thousand were Christians.” Just think about that. There truly must have been times when Christians at the time of the writing of Revelation felt very much as if they were stuck on The Quay!
And it continues for many today. John McCallum writes:
In 2018, 1 in 9 Christians experienced serious persecution—a 14% increase over the previous year. And roughly 70% of the world’s Christians today live without the right to worship freely. So when they worship, they know what that means: potential persecution.
And persecution can happen in subtle ways too. While it must be said that, overall, American Christians know little of anything of the persecution faced by Christians the world over, it is also true that there are likely people in this very room who have indeed paid a price for following Jesus. There are likely people in this very room who know the feeling of The Quay: fire behind, water ahead, and a prayer for help to almighty God.
If that is you, the letter to the church of Smyrna is for you.
And if it is not you, then the letter to the church of Smyrna is also for you, for it might just help you to care enough for suffering Christians around the world…and it might just move you to cry out to God on their behalf in prayer.
The assault of Satan upon the church.
The devil is referenced twice in the letter to the Smyrnaeans: in verse 9 and 10. This is important because it establishes that the devil assaults the church of the living God frequently and cruelly. In fact, some have alleged that the very word “Smyrna” is connected to the word “myrrh” which was used to anoint dead bodies. The Venerable Bede, in his ancient commentary on Revelation, observed, “For Smyrna may be rendered ‘myrrh,’ which signifies the mortification of the flesh.” So the very name of the city carried with it the scent of suffering and death for some. Satan attacked the church of Smyrna in three primary ways.
First, the devil stirs up persecution against the people of God.
8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 9 “‘I know your tribulation…
“I know your tribulation.” The persecution that the church of Smyrna underwent was intense and severe. J. Scott Duvall offers some helpful historical background.
Smyrna (modern Izmir) was a harbor city located about forty miles northwest of Ephesus and the second stop for a messenger traveling the counterclockwise loop to visit the seven churches. Smyrna maintained strong ties to Rome as the first city to build a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC) and the guardian of the second imperial cult temple in Asia (AD 26)…For Christians, the reality of suffering was strongly tied to the local unbelieving Jewish community that instigated persecution against Christians, perhaps by accusing them before the Roman authorities…The Jewish condemnation of Christians in Smyrna continued into the second century, when the Jews betrayed Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John and bishop of Smyrna, resulting in his martyrdom.
So the Christians of Smyrna were being violently persecuted and it was Satan who was stirring the pot of violence. Such is it ever. The devil loves nothing more than to hurt and to wound the people of God. His favorite tactic is, of course, to get us to hurt and wound each other. Barring that, however, he will seek to move those outside of the church to wound us. Again, this is the living reality of many Christians around the world today who meet secretly in fear of being hauled to prison or having their business shut down.
But there are other forms of suffering. Over the years I have seen many people pay many prices for following Jesus. I have seen wives in tears as they recount how their husbands openly mock them for going to church. In an earlier pastorate I watched a grieving mother struggle with the fact that her son finally gave in to his father’s unbelieving pressure and abandoned the faith in which he was raised. I have heard the testimonies of people who have told me that they were squeezed out of the company when, because of conviction, they would not cooperate with their employer in something illegal and unethical. I have heard parents who have been openly dismissed by their own children over the faith. I have heard more than once people say that a person they were dating called it off because of their faith in Christ and efforts to follow Jesus in that relationship.
On and on it goes. This is not being tied to a stake and set on fire, it is true, but for the person who loses much because of their refusal to reject Jesus it feels pretty much the same. The devil seeks to attack the people of God.
The devil also attacked the church of Smyrna in the area of finances.
9 “‘I know your…poverty
Leon Morris observes:
Next comes poverty. John uses the strong word ptōcheia, which Trench distinguishes from penia: ‘The penēs has nothing superfluous, the ptochos nothing at all.’ The poverty of the Smyrneans was extreme.
Many of these dear saints had lost their jobs because of Jesus or could not get work because of Jesus. As just mentioned, this happens in our own day. If the devil cannot take our lives he will seek to take our livelihoods. But note that Jesus “knows” the poverty of the suffering church where such exists. He sees it and is not indifferent to it.
What is more, the Christians of Smyrna were slandered.
9 “‘I know…the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
They were lied about and spoken ill of. Here, the culprits are named: “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” How fascinating! What can this mean? J. Scott Duvall writes:
Jews were exempt from worshiping the Roman emperor because Judaism was tolerated as an ancient monotheistic religion. Throughout most of the first century, Christians and Jews were closely identified, resulting in some protection for Christians. With the persecutions under Nero in the mid-60s, however, the authorities began to view Christianity as an unacceptable new religion. The term “slander” (blasphēmia) probably refers to Jewish “accusers” who would inform the Roman authorities about Christians, thereby opening them up to persecution.
Ah! So, for the Jewish Christians of Smyrna anyway, they were being slandered by their kinsman according to the flesh. It is intriguing to me that the Greek word “slander” is blasphemia, for truly slander against the bride of Christ is blasphemy against Christ Himself.
You have likely heard it said that the early Christians were oftentimes accused of three things: (1) atheism (because they rejected the gods and the divine status of the Emperor), (2) incest (a slander based on the fact that these new Christians exchanged the holy kiss and referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”), and cannibalism (a slander based on the rumors that surfaced of these strange Christians eating and drinking blood in their worship services). It is true that they were accused of these things, and many other things besides, as Christians are today.
It is not uncommon to hear sweeping generalizations of Christians or Evangelicals are profoundly skewed. The great tragedy is that the foolishness and wickedness of some who profess to follow Jesus calls down the anger of the rightly-scandalized public. This is true enough. Even so, slanders continue to this day: that Christians are dumb rubes, that Christians are all hypocrites and none of them follow Jesus, that churches are all corrupt and want to steal your money and brainwash your children, etc. etc. etc. How many times have we heard these things?
Again, are there Christians and churches that are guilty of this? To be sure, and so these slanders are understandable just as those Christians who invite these things with their own hypocrisy should be profoundly ashamed. But the application of these words to all Christians and all churches and all pastors or even to most is a slander indeed. The church of Jesus Christ remains an astonishing source of good around the world in the ways that the world cannot and will not see, and this, in part, is because of the way the devil continues to slander.
The assurances of Jesus for the church.
We have seen, then, that the devil is at work against the church. But what of Jesus? What assurances does Jesus give the church of Smyrna and, by extension, us?
First, Jesus tells the church of Smyrna that there is more to their poverty than meets the eye. Observe His parenthesis:
9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)…
“But you are rich”! What a thing to say to poor people? What can He mean? He means that those who are poor in material goods may yet be rich in other ways.
Paul says something fascinating in 2 Corinthians 8 about the generosity of churches that sought to help poorer believers who were suffering. Listen:
1 We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord,4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Here, the poor churches of Macedonia gave out of their poverty and so out of their love for Christ and His church. As such, “their extreme poverty…overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” That is how the poor in Christ are truly rich. In Christ, we can be:
- rich in love
- rich in generosity
- rich in hope
- rich in friendship
- rich in hope
- rich in faith
I certainly do not want to romanticize poverty, which can be cruel and crippling. Even so, I would like to say that, on the whole, the happiest people I have ever met have been some of the poorest. Conversely, the most unhappy and miserable have been North Americans who knew where their next meals were coming from.
Jesus also assures the Smyraeans and us of victory! He does so in a strange way, however.
10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation…
Michael Kuykendall notes that this reference to “ten days” of “tribulation” is likely looking back to the book of Daniel.
John alludes to the story of Daniel and his three friends who were tested “for ten days” not to eat food offered to idols (Dan 1:12–15). They did not compromise with the pagan culture that pressured them. The Daniel story became a model for Jews and later for Christians who would rather be persecuted for faithfulness than capitulate to worshipping idols.
He notes, however, that:
A few interpreters, however, accept a literal period of “ten days.” Colin Hemer posits it alludes to the actual time that those sent into gladiatorial combat were imprisoned, to be followed by certain death in the arena. Alan Johnson agrees. “In the first-century Roman world, prison was usually not punitive but the prelude to trial and execution; hence the words ‘be faithful, even to the point of death.’” If this indeed rests in Smyrna’s background, then it confirms that a short, intense, and complete time period of suffering is in store for believers, and that martyrdom is a future possibility.
Regardless of whether this is literal or figurative, the number ten certainly denotes a limited period of time. But Jesus continues:
10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
He tells them to be “faithful unto death” because:
- “I will give you the crown of life.”
- They “will not be hurt by the second death.”
In Revelation 20, “the second death” is defined for us:
14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The second death is eternal death in the lake of fire. The people of God will never go there. The temporal fires of persecution will end: “10 days.” The eternal fires of hell never will. The children of God will be given, Jesus says, “the crown of life.” In James 1, James writes:
12 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.
Take heart, suffering Christian! You will be given the crown of life, there will be an end to your suffering, and you will not enter into judgment!
But there is an another assurance Jesus gives us, and it is one that is found in His introduction to this second letter.
8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
Jesus is “the first and last, who died and came to life.”
Jesus has walked through death.
Jesus has conquered death.
Jesus is the death-killer.
Jesus knows His way out of the tomb.
Jesus gives His suffering church the promise of resurrection.
Jesus assures us that though we may be killed here and now, we will have life eternal in Him.
In Romans 6 Paul wrote:
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Yes! In Christ we know both His cross and His empty tomb! In Christ we have the victory of life!
I used to keep this big old-timey bank ledger that I called my death book. In it I recorded the names of everybody I buried. I put their name, their date of death, and where they lived. It was a large, imposing book of death. I no longer have it. It kept filling up and did not make for great reading. But I once carried it into the pulpit and held it up and said, “This is my death book. There is a line in this book for me. There is a line in this book for you. One day our names will be in this book.”
A few days after that sermon an elderly man in the church died. I went to his home to see his widow. His old friends were sitting on the porch. One of the elderly men said, “Well, preacher, another name for you book.” And I said, “Another name for my book.”
And there still remains a name in that book for me, wherever that book is.
One day, my name will be in that book.
And I have to come to terms with that.
But I know somebody who has another book.
And because I have given my life to Him my name is also in that book.
And when my name gets written in that first book, He is going to open that second book, and, by grace to faith and on the assurance of His word, He will see my name there.
And I will be given a crown of victory and a welcome.
And I will be unworthy of any of it, but He will make it so.
The Lamb has a book. And when we trust in Him the Lamb writes our name in it…and nobody can erase us out of it!
Do not fear suffering, church. Fear the absence of your name from the Lamb’s book. Cry out to Jesus and be saved…today…now…and you will be given a life and a joy that the devil can never take away!
 Duvall, J. Scott. Revelation (Teach the Text Commentary Series) (pp. 51-52). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 McCallum, John. Revealed: The Sweeping Story of Revelation (p. 34). Kindle Edition.
 Bede, The Exposition of the Apocalypse by Bede the Presbyter. Ancient Christian Texts: Latin Commentaries on Revelation. Ed. and trans. William C. Weinrich. Ser. Ed. Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011),p.118.
 Duvall, J. Scott, pp.51-52.
 Morris, p. 68.
 Duvall, J. Scott., pp. 52-53.
 Kuykendall, Michael. Lions, Locusts, and the Lamb: Interpreting Key Images in the Book of Revelation (pp. 317-318). Wipf & Stock, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.