Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Message To Seven Churches - Part 2, Smyrna

The next church that Jesus addresses is the church at Smyrna. The ancient city of Smyrna is known today by the name Izmir, and it is one of the strongest cities in modern Turkey. History tells us that there was a Greek settlement in this area several hundred years before Christ. That Greek colony was captured and destroyed by the Lydians in the 7th century B.C. and the city virtually disappeared. The city was not resettled until early in the 3rd century B.C. when Alexander the Great founded the city known as Smyrna on the shores of the Aegean Sea. The city was located on the western coast of Asia Minor, about 40 miles north of Ephesus. The ancient city of Smyrna lay at the end of a major east-west road, it had a superb natural harbor, and was surrounded by fertile farmland.

Smyrna was known for their pagan worship and they built a temple in 195 B.C. in honor of Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome. The cities leaders were consistently loyal to Rome and because of their years of faithfulness to Rome the city was given the honor in 23 B.C of building a temple to the emperor Tiberius. After the building of this temple the city became the center for the cult of emperor worship, which under the rules of Nero and Domitian became a source of severe persecution for the early Christians.

Smyrna was considered the most beautiful city in Asia, and in spite of the competition between Smyrna and its neighbors, Ephesus and Pergamum, Smyrna called itself the “first city of Asia.” The city streets were laid out in a grid of right angles much like many modern cities today. Smyrna contained many beautiful buildings including a large public library and museum. The Olympic games were held here, and Smyrna even claimed Homer as one of their countrymen.

The name Smyrna means Myrrh, which according to Dr. Vine comes from a root word meaning “bitter.” 1 Myrrh was used as a perfume, a sedative, and also used in the embalming process. Myrrh was the chief export of Smyrna and is probably where the city got its name. You will remember that myrrh was one of the gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi when He was an infant (Matthew 2:11), and was offered again to Jesus when He was on the cross (Mark 15:23), and myrrh was also used in the burial of Jesus (John 19:39). There is an interesting verse in Isaiah that refers to the coming kingdom of Jesus and people bringing Him gifts where, in contrast to the first coming of Jesus, myrrh is mysteriously missing from the list:
All those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.
Isaiah 60:6
The thing that I found interesting is that in reference to the second coming of Christ there is no mention of myrrh, I believe, because myrrh is associated with suffering and death. At Jesus' second coming death and suffering will be abolished and since He is coming to reign, myrrh is not mentioned as one of the gifts that will be presented to Him.

This is the second city that Jesus addressed, a poor church undergoing extreme persecution for their faith and the testimony of Jesus Christ. This is what He said to them:
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation  for 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 will not be hurt by the second death.”
Revelation 2:8-11
Jesus begins by telling them that He is the first and the last, who was dead and has come to life. We first encountered this phrase in chapter one as one of the descriptions Jesus used for Himself in the vision that He gave to John. This title is one that uniquely identifies Jesus as the risen, exalted, and glorified Lord. By saying that He is the first and the last Jesus is telling the church at Smyrna (and us) that He is God. This title is an Old Testament name for God as we can see from these two verses in Isaiah:
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me.”
Isaiah 44:6
“Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He, I am the first, I am also the last.”
Isaiah 48:12
The use of this title shows that Jesus is transcendent; this is, that He is outside of time and space. This is teaching us that, as God, He was here before anything was created, and He will be here after all of creation ceases to be. Jesus also says that He was dead and has come to life again. John MacArthur points out here that this is a divine mystery; that the God who was before all things, and who will be after all things could be dead. He says:
How can the ever-living One who transcends time, space, and history die? Peter reveals the answer in 1 Peter 3:18: Christ was ‘put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.’ He died in His incarnate humanness as the perfect sacrifice for sin, but now has come to life (by His resurrection) and lives forever ‘according to the power of an indestructible life’ (Heb. 7:16; cf. Rom. 6:9). 2
This title should have brought great comfort to the persecuted church in Smyrna. Jesus is reminding them here that He was persecuted to death, but now He is alive forevermore, and that as long as they trust in Him, even though they are persecuted, and may even be put to death, they have no reason to fear because He has overcome death and lives forevermore.

Jesus tells them that He knows their tribulation and their poverty, but that they are really rich. The word translated tribulation here is the Greek word thlípsis, and it means “to crush, press, compress, squeeze, [or] break.” 3 These people were being crushed, squeezed, and compressed to the point of breaking for their faithfulness to Jesus. As I mentioned above, Smyrna was the center for emperor worship, and as part of this emperor worship every citizen was required once a year to bow down and declare, “Caesar is lord.” Since the Christians would not and could not do this the persecution against them increased to the point that they were losing their property, their jobs, their families, and even their lives. Polycarp, who was a pupil of the apostle John, and the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in 156 A.D. when he refused to deny Christ and bow to Caesar. His last words were, “Eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” and then they burned him at the stake. This is the persecution that was being experienced by the church at Smyrna.

The word poverty here is the Greek word ptōcheía, which means not just to be poor, but refers to someone who is in “abject poverty, possessing absolutely nothing.” 4 Dr Zodhiates says this word “indicates complete helplessness.” 5 And Dr. Vine defines the word as “destitution.” 6 The use of this word here tells us a lot about the church in Smyrna; these people had absolutely nothing. They had lost everything because of their faith in Jesus. They were not just poor; they were completely helpless and destitute.

Jesus told them that He knew their poverty, but He said that they were really rich. What Jesus is saying is that even though you may be poor in this life, you are actually rich in what really matters - the grace of God. And even if the persecution they were suffering resulted in their death they would be better off because they had Heaven to gain. This is a great paradox of the Bible; those who have the riches of heaven often are the poorest in the things of this world, as we can see in the letter of James:
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?
Revelation 2:5
Warren Wiersbe says of this passage:

[T]hey were rich! They lived for eternal values that would never change, riches that could never be taken away… In fact, their suffering for Christ only increased their riches.” 7
The church at Smyrna was suffering severe persecution and poverty, but they were not being asked to endure anything that Jesus had not already endured for them (and us), and to comfort them look at how He addressed this church, He said that He was dead and has come to life. In other words, Jesus knows what they are suffering at the hands of the world, but He has overcome the world, and because He died but is now alive, so can they.

But not only were the Christians in Smyrna being persecuted by the government, they were also being persecuted by the local Jewish population. Notice in verse nine Jesus says He knows, “the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

There was a large Jewish community in Smyrna, and since the Roman government accepted the Jewish religion the Jews were exempted from emperor worship. But the Jews did not accept the Christians any more than the Romans did, so both the Jews and Gentiles were attacking the church. John MacArthur points out here that Jesus called the Jews a “synagogue of Satan” because:
[T]hose Jews who hated and rejected Jesus Christ were just as much Satan’s followers as pagan idol worshipers.”8
Jesus calls what the Jews were doing “blasphemy.” The word translated blasphemy is the Greek word blasphēmía, which means:
[V]erbal abuse against someone which denotes the very worst type of slander… with false witnesses; wounding someone’s reputation by evil reports, evil speaking.”9
This is exactly what the Jews of Smyrna were doing to the Christians there, John MacArthur says that the Jews:
[C]ommonly accused Christians of cannibalism (based on a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper), immorality (based on a perversion of the holy kiss with which believers greeted each other), breaking up homes (when one spouse became a Christian and the other did not, it often caused conflict), atheism (because, … Christians rejected the pagan pantheon of deities), and political disloyalty and rebellion (because Christians refused to offer the required sacrifices to the emperor). Hoping to destroy the Christian faith, some of Smyrna’s wealthy, influential Jews reported these blasphemous, false allegations to the Romans. These haters of the gospel were a synagogue of Satan, meaning they assembled to plan their attack on the church, thus doing Satan’s will. They may have claimed to be a synagogue of God, but they were just the opposite.10
After telling them that He knows what they are going through, Jesus then tells the church at Smyrna not to fear what they are about to suffer. He tells them that some of them will be cast into prison, and that some of them will be tested and face tribulation. Jesus also says something rather interesting here; He says that they will suffer these things for “ten days.” There are many different interpretations of this phrase: some believe that ten days is a reference to ten different waves of persecution that the church would have to endure, some believe that it is a reference to a Roman law that allowed a person to only be held in prison without a trial for ten days, others say that this is talking about not days but years, saying that Jesus was preparing the church for a ten year period of persecution, and some view it as a literal ten days. We will look at this more closely after we have looked at all seven of these churches and look at these messages as a history of the New Testament Church, but for now let’s just say that when Jesus said that they would endure this trial for ten days He was referring to a brief period of time.

The command that they are given is that they are to not fear what they are about to suffer. Why are they to not be afraid? Because there trust was in Jesus, the One who was dead and is alive, and who had over come the world (John 16:33). They were told to “be faithful until death” and that by doing so they would be rewarded. The command here to “Be faithful” is, in the Greek, a Present Imperative Active verb, which means that they are to keep on being faithful, or to keep proving their faithfulness to the point of death. In other words they were to be willing to die rather than be unfaithful to their profession of faith in Christ.

Then as a reword for not being afraid and for remaining faithful to the point of death Jesus promises them the “crown of life” as a reward. The word translated crown here is the word stéphanos, which is the victor’s crown. Dr. Zodhiates says that this word is:
[N]ot used of the kingly crown but of the crown of victory in games, of civic worth, military valor, nuptial joy, festival gladness.11
What Jesus is saying here then is that by being faithful to death they will be the victor and will be rewarded with eternal life; if they are martyred for their faith they will be ushered into His presence, they will inherit eternal life, and they will be wearing the crown of the victorious.

Jesus ends His message once again with the phrase “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” With this statement Jesus is letting us know that the message that He has just delivered to the church in Smyrna was not for them alone, but has application for all of the churches, as well as for us today. Jesus says that those who heed this message and overcome will “not be hurt by the second death.” Revelation 20:14 teaches us that the lake of fire is the second death, and we are told here that if we remain faithful we will not experience it. John MacArthur tells us:
Though persecuted believers may suffer the first (physical) death, they will never experience the second death.” And to make sure we get the point he adds, “Not is the strongest negative the Greek language can express.12
And Warren Wiersbe concludes this section with these words to all Christians living today:
It costs to be a dedicated Christian, in some places more than others. As end-time pressures increase, persecution will also increase; and God’s people need to be ready (1 Peter 4:12ff). The world may call us “poor Christians,” but in God’s sight we are rich! 13

1 Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W. (1996). Vine's complete expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words (2:423). Nashville: T. Nelson.
2 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (69). Chicago: Moody Press.
3 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G2347). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
4 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. "An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire 'BE' series"--Jkt. (Re 2:8). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
5 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G4432). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
6 Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W. (1996). Vine's complete expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words (2:478). Nashville: T. Nelson.
7 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. "An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire 'BE' series"--Jkt. (Re 2:8). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
8 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (71). Chicago: Moody Press.
9 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G988). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
1 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (71). Chicago: Moody Press.
11 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G4735). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
12 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (79). Chicago: Moody Press.
13 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. "An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire 'BE' series"--Jkt. (Re 2:8). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

Next time we will look at the church at Pergamum. Print This Post

No comments: