ANTICIPATING FUTURE RESURRECTION FORTIFIES BELIEVERS TO FAITHFULLY ENDURE PERSECUTION EVEN TO THE POINT OF DEATH
John MacArthur: Throughout its history, the seemingly paradoxical truth has been that the more the church has been persecuted, the greater has been its purity and strength. For decades, churches in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were oppressed by their atheistic communist governments. Believers continue to be persecuted in Muslim countries and elsewhere to this day. They are forbidden to openly proclaim their faith. Many are imprisoned and some martyred. In the Soviet Union books, even Bibles, were scarce. Yet not only did those churches survive, they prospered. The lifting of the Iron Curtain revealed a powerful, pure church, one characterized by genuine faith, deep spirituality, humility, zeal, love of the truth, and single-minded devotion to the Lord.
Scripture links persecution and spiritual strength. “Consider it all joy, my brethren,” wrote James, “when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”(James 1:2–4). Peter encouraged suffering Christians with the truth that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10). The purest Christian graces are those forged in the furnace of adversity.
The church at Smyrna displayed the power and purity that comes from successfully enduring persecution. Persecution had purified and purged it from sin and affirmed the reality of its members’ faith. Hypocrites do not stay to face persecution, because false believers do not want to endure the pain. Trials and persecution strengthen and refine genuine saving faith, but uncover and destroy false faith.
Warren Wiersbe: 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!
Daniel Akin: Though followers of Jesus will face opposition and even martyrdom in this world for the sake of the gospel, the promise of Christ is ultimate deliverance and eternal life. . .
Suffering, persecution, and martyrdom have indeed been the calling of the church of the Lord Jesus somewhere among the nations throughout her entire history. At one time the book Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was a perennial best seller, cataloging the stories of men and women who gave their lives for Christ. Today Voice of the Martyrs updates us on the persecution and sufferings of our brothers and sisters around the world.
Kendell Easley: Christ commends the Smyrnan Christians for enduring persecution and pledges them eternal life, even though their troubles are about to intensify for a short time.
(:8) PROLOGUE – ENCOURAGEMENT FROM THE ETERNALTIY AND RESURRECTION POWER OF CHRIST
A. Command to Write to the Church at Smyrna
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:”
John MacArthur: At the end of the first century, life was difficult and dangerous for the church at Smyrna. The city, long an ally of Rome, was a hotbed of emperor worship. Under Emperor Domitian, it became a capital offense to refuse to offer the yearly sacrifice to the emperor. Not surprisingly, many Christians faced execution. The most famous of Smyrna’s martyrs was Polycarp, executed half a century after John’s time.
The Greek word translated “Smyrna” was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word for myrrh, a resinous substance used as a perfume for the living (Matt. 2:11) and the dead (John 19:39). Its association with death perfectly pictures the suffering church at Smyrna. Like myrrh, produced by crushing a fragrant plant, the church at Smyrna, crushed by persecution, gave off a fragrant aroma of faithfulness to God. At Smyrna, unlike Ephesus, there was no waning of love for Jesus Christ. Because the believers at Smyrna loved Him, they remained faithful to Him; because of that faithfulness, they were hated; because they were hated, they were persecuted; that persecution in turn incited them to love Christ more.
William Barclay: Smyrna was magnificently situated. It stood at the end of the road which crossed Lydia and Phrygia and travelled out to the far east, and it commanded the trade of the rich Hermus valley. Inevitably, it was a great trading city. The city itself stood at the end of a long arm of the sea, which ended in a small land-locked harbour in the heart of the city. It was the safest of all harbours and the most convenient; and it had the added advantage that in time of war it could be easily closed by a chain across its mouth. It was fitting that on the coins of Smyrna there should be the image of a merchant ship ready for sea.
The setting of the city was equally beautiful. It began at the harbour; it crossed the narrow foothills; and then behind the city there rose the Pagos, a hill covered with temples and noble buildings which were spoken of as ‘the Crown of Smyrna’. One traveller has described it as ‘a queenly city crowned with towers’. Aristides likened Smyrna to a great statue with the feet in the sea, the middle parts in the plain and the foothills, and the head, crowned with great buildings, on the Pagos behind. He called it ‘a flower of beauty such as earth and sun had never shown to mankind.’
Robert Mounce: Smyrna sustained a special relationship to Rome and the imperial cult. During the period when Rome was engaged in a struggle for supremacy against the Carthaginian empire (roughly 265–146 B.C.) Smyrna had placed itself squarely on the side of the Romans, and in 195 B.C. it became the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honor of Dea Roma. Later, in 23 B.C., Smyrna won permission (over ten other Asian cities) to build a temple to the emperor Tiberius. This strong allegiance to Rome plus a large Jewish population that was actively hostile to the Christians made it exceptionally difficult to live as a Christian in Smyrna. The most famous martyrdom of the early church fathers was that of the elderly Polycarp, the “twelfth martyr in Smyrna,” who, upon his refusal to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, was placed upon a pyre to be burned.
Robert Thomas: The founding of the Christian church in the city is a mystery. Perhaps it came during Paul’s three-year stay in nearby Ephesus. Whatever its origin, it is safe to say that nowhere was life more dangerous for a Christian. If anyone refused to confess “Caesar is Lord” along with his burning of incense, he was considered disloyal and became the object of persecution by the local and imperial governments. The martyrdom of Polycarp was not an isolated case; mass executions of Christians happened on numbers of occasions. It is no wonder that Jesus’ message to this church “drips” with words of encouragement to believers in a very perilous situation.
B. Characterization of Christ
- The Eternal God
“The first and the last,”
Van Parunak: As in 1:17, the title is that used of Jehovah in Is. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12. He omits “and the living one,” but continues as in 1:18.
John MacArthur: The first and the last is an Old Testament title for God (Isa. 44:6; 48:12; cf. 41:4), and its application here (and in 22:13) to Christ affirms His equality of nature with God. He is the eternal, infinite God, who already existed when all things were created, and who will continue to exist after they are destroyed. Jesus Christ transcends time, space, and the creation.
Daniel Akin: The emphasis is on His eternality and sovereignty. He is the eternal Lord over all of history, and He will have the last word! He has always been aware of the circumstances of His people. He knows their situation right now. He has their future in plain sight. Time is in His hands. This is a God you can trust today and tomorrow. The city Smyrna may claim to be the “first in Asia,” but it is Christ who is the “First and Last,” and He alone provides “a superior foundation for security” (Graves, “Local References,” 25).
- The Resurrected God-Man
“who was dead, and has come to life,”
John MacArthur: This designation of Christ was to bring comfort to the persecuted believers at Smyrna. Knowing that they were undergoing difficult times, Christ was reminding them that He transcends temporal matters, and, through their union with Him, so should they. And should they face death at the hands of their persecutors, beside them is the One who conquered death (Heb. 2:14) and who promised, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die”(John 11:25–26).
Robert Mounce: In the salutation of each of the seven letters, Christ identifies himself by means of some part of the description in the initial vision (1:13–16). There is normally a certain appropriateness between the identifying characteristic and the church that is addressed. The church at Smyrna was a persecuted church, so the letter comes from the sovereign One (“the First and the Last”), who died and came to life again. As he was victorious over death, so they, too, can face martyrdom knowing that faithfulness is rewarded with eternal life.
Gordon Fee: Indeed it is content such as this that drove the leaders of the early church (the church fathers) to wrestle theologically with this core reality of the Christian faith—that the Eternal One, without beginning or ending, becomes the Incarnate One, who in his incarnation experienced our singular reality of death, but who through his resurrection guaranteed our own future.
Daniel Akin: If “the First and the Last” draws attention to His deity, “the One who was dead and came to life” speaks to His humanity. The former emphasized His authority over time. The latter emphasizes His authority over death and life. Jesus experienced death for us, a far more horrible death than any human will ever know. He bore the full judgment and wrath of God for the sins of the world (John 1:29). He was subject to slander, persecution, rejection, imprisonment, and death. He walked this road. But He came to life! He conquered! He won! Like their Savior, this church too may walk the road of persecution and suffering. Like Him, they may even walk the road of an unjust death. But they should not lose heart. To live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21). In Christ believers are in a win-win scenario. He lives and they will live with Him. Because of this guarantee, they have no fear of the death all should fear, “the second death” (Rev 2:11).
Robert Thomas: The two characterizations of Christ in 2:8 bring together what Jesus accomplished on earth and what He is by nature. His death and subsequent life as well as His eternal nature are especially relevant to those to whom He promises life subsequent to their death for His sake. As an eternal and living Savior He is able to perform His promises (2:10c, 11). As He experienced death and rose in triumph over it, so will the martyrs, a fact guaranteed by His eternal nature.
C. Communication from the Sovereign Head of the Church
I. (:9) COMMENDATION FOR FAITHFULNESS IN THE MIDST OF SUFFERING – (IN PARTICULAR MATERIAL POVERTY AND MALICIOUS SLANDER)
A. Faithfulness in the Midst of Suffering in General
“I know your tribulation”
Robert Thomas: One way to understand the three terms sou tēn thlipsin kai tēn ptōcheian … kai tēn blasphēmian is as affliction and blasphemy with poverty falling between the two because it is the result of persecution. The prominence of persecution in this message (cf. 2:10) and its consequent effect of producing a shortage of material possessions support this understanding. This approach is doubtful, however, because placing poverty in the middle lessens rather than heightens the emphasis on it. Another way of taking the three terms is at face value, expressing three distinct characteristics of the church’s situation. Although this may be the normal way to explain the meaning if it were expressed by some other author, the proclivity of this author for an ascensive use of kai is established and probably affects this phrase too. The preferred relationship between the three [tribulation, poverty, blasphemy] is to assign the first term a general connotation and to make the second and third explanatory of it. This aligns with the force of the comparable triplet in Rev. 2:2 by giving the former kai its frequent ascensive meaning: “your affliction, even [your] poverty and the slander [against you].”
B. Faithfulness in the Midst of Suffering in Specific Circumstances
- Circumstances of Material Poverty
“and your poverty (but you are rich),”
William Barclay: Greek, there are two words for poverty. Penia describes the state of those who are not wealthy and who, as the Greeks defined it, must satisfy their needs with their own hands. Ptōcheia [used here] describes complete destitution. It has been put this way: penia describes the state of someone who has nothing superfluous; ptōcheia describes the state of someone who has nothing at all.
The poverty of the Christians was due to two things. It was due to the fact that most of them belonged to the lower classes of society. The gulf between the top and the bottom of the social scale was very wide. We know, for instance, that in Rome the poorer classes literally starved because contrary winds delayed the corn ships from Alexandria, and the entitlement of corn could not be distributed to those in need.
There was another reason for the poverty of the Christians. Sometimes they suffered from the plundering of their possessions (Hebrews 10:34). There were times when a mob would suddenly attack the Christians and wreck their homes. Life was not easy for a Christian in Smyrna or anywhere else in the ancient world.
- Circumstances of Malicious Slander
“and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not,
but are a synagogue of Satan.”
Van Parunak: The first feature of the coming suffering is its agent, the one behind it. Note the shift from (the synagogue of) “Satan” (v. 10). Satan is the Hebrew name, meaning “accuser,” a role that we see in Job 1. By translating the name into Greek, the Lord makes its underlying meaning transparent to the Greek recipients of the Revelation. The believers can expect to be accused to the human authorities because of their faith. When this happens, they must recognize that the real accuser, who motivates human persecutors, is the devil.
John MacArthur: Unbelieving Jews commonly 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; cf. Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26), breaking up homes (when one spouse became a Christian and the other did not, it often caused conflict; cf. Luke 12:51–53), atheism (because, as already noted, 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.
William Barclay: Six slanders were regularly levelled against the Christians.
(1) On the basis of the words of the sacrament – this is my body, and this is my blood – the story went about that the Christians were cannibals.
(2) Because the Christians called their common meal the Agape, the Love Feast, it was said that their gatherings were orgies of lust.
(3) Because Christianity did, in fact, often split families, when some members became Christians and some did not, the Christians were accused of ‘tampering with family relationships’.
(4) Worshippers in the traditional ancient religions accused the Christians of atheism because they could not understand a worship which had no images of the gods such as they themselves had.
(5) The Christians were accused of being politically disloyal because they would not say: ‘Caesar is Lord.’
(6) The Christians were accused of being fire-raisers because they foretold the end of the world in flames.
It was not difficult for maliciously minded people to circulate dangerous slanders about the Christian Church.
Gordon Fee: What seems certain from John’s sentence is that the Jewish community had taken the lead in whatever had happened to bring about the believers’ “afflictions and . . . poverty.”
G.R. Beasley Murray: The Lord knows about this situation, but he refrains from intervening. He does not remove the poverty, he does not vindicate his followers in face of the Jewish slanders, nor does he frustrate the Devil’s machinations which will bring about the imprisonment and death of som. He simply encourages them to endure. Why no more than this? The author of the book of Job wrestled with the problem, and so have the saints of God ever since. John provides no answer, but his whole book is written in the conviction that the Church of Christ has the vocation of suffering with its Lord, that it may share his glory in the kingdom he has won for mankind. In this he follows in the footsteps of Jesus and is one with his follow prophets and apostles in the New Testament.
Richard Phillips: Another feature of Smyrna was the large and prominent Jewish community in the city. If the pattern of the apostle Paul had been followed when the gospel came to this city, the evangelists would first have preached the gospel to Jews, and many of the first believers may have come from the Jewish community. This would have been one reason why Jewish leaders were some of the early church’s most resolute oppressors. Another reason was their resolve to retain the cherished privileges under Roman rule. Because of Jerusalem’s support of Julius Caesar in the civil war, over a century earlier, Jews were granted special permission not to worship the emperor but to offer prayers to their own God on his behalf. Not wanting to share this status with converts to Christ, the Jews slandered Christians to the authorities as those who did not worship the God of the Old Testament and blasphemously denied the Christian claim that Jesus is the Messiah.
II. (:10) COUNSEL REGARDING UPCOMING TESTING TO THE POINT OF MARTYRDOM
A. Anticipate Future Suffering with Courage
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer.”
Warren Wiersbe: No words of accusation are given to the congregation in Smyrna! They may not have enjoyed the approval of men, but they certainly received the praise of God. However, the Lord did give them solemn words of admonition as they faced increased suffering: “Don’t be afraid!”
He assured them that He knew the Devil’s plans and was in complete control of the situation. Some of the believers would be imprisoned and tried as traitors to Rome. Yet their tribulation would not be long; to the Bible, ten days signifies “a brief time” (Gen. 24:55; Acts 25:6). The important thing was faithfulness, standing true to Christ no matter what the government might threaten to do.
Kendell Easley: Of all the churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia escape criticism. This struggling church, however, now hears a message it may have dreaded. Therefore, the Lord’s command begins with do not be afraid. The suffering in Smyrna is about to get worse.
B. Anticipate the Attacks of Satan as a Limited Time of Testing
- Attacks Will Involve Imprisonment
“Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison,”
Craig Koester: Prisoners in city jails lived in squalor and cramped space. Stone walls, often without windows, created a dark, suffocating enclosure. During the day prisoners wore collars and manacles on one hand, while at night they slept on the ground with their legs in stocks so they could not stretch them out. Rations were scant and could be withheld by the jailer. In antiquity, people were not sentenced to prison terms as they are in modern times. People were put into prison in order to force them to obey the authorities, to hold them in custody until their cases came up for trial, or to confine them until they were executed or punished in some other way.
- Attacks Will Involve Testing
“that you may be tested,”
Daniel Akin: Jesus assures them that their accuser will try to harm them, but Christ will use the Devil’s evil intentions to refine and prove them. He will reveal their faith, loyalty, and love for Him. That they “will have affliction for 10 days” is symbolic of a definite but limited period of time. He allows it and will control its duration.
Richard Phillips: When Jesus proclaims his lordship over the trial about to be suffered in Smyrna, he not only promises a limited duration and the help of his presence in the flames, but also declares his purpose in the tribulation. There is positive significance to the trial: Jesus permits it so “that you may be tested” (Rev. 2:10). We should think of our faith being tested in trials in two ways. The first is the proving or displaying of the genuineness of our faith. Peter wrote that we should rejoice in our trials, since they “have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6–7 NIV). When Christians hold fast in faith under trial, the genuineness of our belief and the certainty of our salvation is proved. True believers will pass the test of tribulation by holding fast to Jesus, while false believers who were never truly saved are revealed by falling away under trial.
Joined to this is a second purpose of strengthening or refining our faith. Paul said that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3–4). We have seen that Peter compared the trial of faith to the refining of precious metals. The aim of refining is to purify the precious metals by removing the dross. Likewise, Christ uses trials to drive out worldliness and sin from our lives and thus purify our faith. A smith refines ore by heating it to a very high temperature, plunging it into cold water, and then scraping away the dross. He continues this process until he can look upon the gold and see a clear reflection of his own face. So it is with Christ in refining our faith: his goal is through fire and water to separate and scrape away the dross of sin and unbelief, so that he may look upon our faith and see the clear reflection of his own glorious face.
- Attacks Will Involve Intense but Brief Tribulation
“and you will have tribulation ten days.”
Van Parunak: The testing has a fixed duration. The reference is probably not to the actual duration of Roman persecution, but an allusion to the experience of Daniel and his friends:
Dan 1:11 Then said Daniel to Melzar, whom the prince of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 Prove πειράζω G3985 thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days; and let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink. 13 Then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenance of the children that eat of the portion of the king’s meat: and as thou seest, deal with thy servants. 14 So he consented to them in this matter, and proved πειράζω them ten days. 15 And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king’s meat.
John MacArthur: God, who alone sovereignly controls all the circumstances of life, would not permit Satan to torment the Smyrna church for long. Jesus promised that they would have tribulation for only ten days. Though some see the ten days as symbolically representing everything from ten periods of persecution under the Romans, to an undetermined period of time, to a time of ten years, there is no exegetical reason to interpret them as anything other than ten actual days. Satan’s major assault on that local church would be intense, but brief.
Robert Thomas: The ten days are literal and refer to an unknown persecution within a definite period of time during the generation to which this message was addressed. [But also could be a foretaste for a specific time of persecution in the seventieth week of Daniel.] Such limited periods of persecution are well known in biblical history (Gen. 7:4; 40:12, 13, 20; Num. 14:33; Esth. 3:13; Ezek. 4:1-8; Matt. 12:40). This is the most natural understanding of the expression in epistolary literature such as this. No reason to take the ten days as symbolic exists. This explanation also allows for a proper understanding of the genitive case of hēmerōn, which was cited above in connection with the fourth view. It is a “ten-day” affliction. The view is illustrated by, but not fulfilled by, the persecution of Polycarp in this city in the mid-second century. A similar surge of opposition against some Christians in Smyrna apparently came a short time after the publication of the Apocalypse.
C. Anticipate Future Reward for Faithfulness
- Condition of Faithfulness
“Be faithful until death,”
William Barclay: In this passage there is also a demand, and the demand is for loyalty, loyal even when death is the price to be paid. Loyalty was a quality of which the people of Smyrna knew something, for their city had flung in its lot with Rome when Rome’s greatness was only a far-off possibility, and had never wavered from it in its allegiance, in fair weather and in foul. If all the other noble qualities of life were placed in the balance against it, loyalty would outweigh them all.
Kendell Easley: If there is any key note in this second letter, it is found near the end of verse 10: be faithful, even to the point of death. These persecuted believers were not promised escape from tribulation; they were promised instead something far greater: the grace to endure afflictions without fear and the pledge that the one who died and came to life again will certainly bring them through to the “crown of life.”
- Promise of Future Reward
“and I will give you the crown of life.”
Robert Mounce: It is not the royal crown (the diadēma) that is promised, but the wreath or garland (the stephanos) that was awarded to the victor at the games. Its value lay not in itself but in what it symbolized. According to Pausanias, Smyrna was famous for its games (6.14.3). With others, Bruce thinks that the imagery is suggested by the circle of colonnaded buildings on the crest of Mt. Pagos called the crown of Smyrna.
Daniel Akin: Crowns are mentioned a number of times in the Bible, and it is instructive to note their occurrences:
- Crown of life (Rev 2:10; also Jas 1:12)
- Crown of righteousness (2 Tim 4:8)
- Crown of glory (1 Pet 5:4)
- Crown of gold (Rev 4:4)
- Crown of rejoicing (1 Thess 2:19)
- Crown of incorruption (1 Cor 9:25)
Each, in some way, draws attention to the blessings of salvation that are ours in Christ.
(:11) EPILOGUE – BLESSING FOR THOSE WHO OVERCOME
A. Pay Attention
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
B. Persevere to Receive the Blessing
- Condition of Overcoming
“He who overcomes”
Craig Keener: Whereas “overcoming” in Ephesus required restoration of love (2:4), in Smyrna it demanded withstanding persecution. Popular Jewish teaching on martyrdom already could identify martyrdom with overcoming (4 Macc. 9:24; 17:15), so no one could miss the point. But Revelation especially underlines the point in the image of the triumphant lion as a slain lamb in 5:5–6: We overcome not by returning hostility but by laying down our lives in the confidence that God will vindicate us.
- Promise of Life
“shall not be hurt by the second death.”
Van Parunak: In keeping with the theme of resurrection. “Second death” appears in the Bible only here and 20:14; 21:8 (of the lake of fire), but appears in the targums and Rabbinic literature in reference to the punishment of the wicked after physical death—either failure to be raised from the dead, or some future suffering. Thus the big lesson that the Lord urges through the letter to Smyrna is the promise of resurrection in the face of mortal opposition. Throughout history, many believers have been borne witness to the Lord with their lives. The city of myrrh reminds us of the Lord’s promise of life to those who are faithful unto death.