Our next stop on our tour of the ancient Asian churches of early Christianity is Smyrna. Smyrna is a city a little further north of Ephesus so at least thus far John is going in some semblance of geographical order. We see the same thing in the beginning of the letter as we saw in the last. Christ is instructing John to write to the messenger or the preacher. He is giving the preacher a message for the church. Who specifically the angel or messenger John was writing is not known. It is thought by most that it was Polycarp. Jamison stated that “TERTULLIAN [The Prescription against Heretics, 32], and IRENÆUS, who had talked with POLYCARP in youth, tell us POLYCARP was consecrated bishop of Smyrna by St. John.” In the spirit of the kind of church here described by John, Polycarp was martyred as an old man in A.D. 168. This is the church of the martyrs and the persecuted. Those who prefer a prophetic view of the churches see this as the post apostolic age of the church. I see no reason though to limit the reality of persecution to a specific age. Any honest study of Christian history will find persecution among true believers to be a constant reality. The apostolic church suffered under Nero and Caligula just as the post apostolic church suffered under Diocletian and Julian the Apostate. Suffering has followed the true church in one form or another. True Christians suffered under the rule of the Popes and under the rule of the Marxists. So the letter to Smyrna finds many churches where they already are and all churches in all ages where they may soon be. The name of this church is instructive. The word Smyrna means “myrrh.” Myrrh is symbolic of death. We sing of Christ every winter “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom; Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone cold tomb.” Myrrh has two great New Testament mentions; it was offered to Christ at His birth and at His death for the entire tenure of His life was to be the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Gill stated this: “Smyrna signifies “myrrh,” which being bitter of taste, is expressive of the bitter afflictions, and persecutions, and deaths, the people of God in this interval endured; and yet, as myrrh is of a sweet smell, so were those saints, in their sufferings for Christ, exceeding grateful and well pleasing to him; wherefore nothing is said by way of complaint to this church; not that she was without fault, but it was proper to use her tenderly in her afflicted state….” The simple truth about suffering is seen in the picture of Myrrh which is bitter but a sweet smelling savor both to men and God. The light affliction is but for a moment but works something that is eternal and wonderful. The sufferings of this present time are not to be compared with the glory of Christ that it works. Jamison this: “Smyrna (meaning myrrh) yielded its sweet perfume in being bruised even to death. Myrrh was used in embalming dead bodies (John 19:39); was an ingredient in the holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:23); a perfume of the heavenly Bridegroom (Psalms 45:8), and of the bride (Solomon 3:6). “Affliction, like it, is bitter for the time being, but salutary; preserving the elect from corruption, and seasoning them for immortality, and gives scope for the exercise of the fragrantly breathing Christian virtues” [VITRINGA].” We note only these two things concerning the persecuted church. Christ has nothing negative to say about the church that is being purified by the fires of persecution. There is no rebuke to this church. Also there is no danger of the persecuted church losing its light. It has been said that the blood of the martyrs were the seeds of the churches. A lasting work is brought out of the fire. Unlike Ephesus which became a graveyard Smyrna had a lasting witness for Christ in history even to the point where the Muslim world even as recent as last century called it Infidel Smyrna.” It is at the very gates of hell that the church prevails. Consider the following three points concerning this church.
First, Christ reveals Himself to them in the terms of the gospel. “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; these things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive….” Jesus combines two statements from the previous chapter. He is the first and the last in that He is God the first and final cause of all things. In the other formula given by Christ He is the one that lives but He changes the picture from the one that lives to the one that is; the first and the last. And from there we follow the formula. The eternal God was humbled unto death. But that was a onetime event; He was dead in the past once and for all. But He is alive. So those are the terms of the gospel as we have already seen; Deity, Humility, Glory. And this is the terms in which the persecuted church, the church that is faithful to death, knows or learns Christ. Why would Christ reveal Himself here to this particular church in the terms of the gospel? It is this; the gospel is not only a historical fact, once and for all event. Jesus did indeed do away with our sins once and for all on the cross. The historical truth of the gospel is what saves us but the gospel is also something that is to be lived out in our lives. We have the dearest fellowship with Christ under the terms of the gospel being lived in our lives. Jesus said for us to take up our cross and follow Him. Paul spoke about the fellowship of His suffering and power of His cross in our lives. When Jesus met with Saul the persecutor of the church He asked “Why do you persecute me?” Again, when Jesus judges the lost and saved alike He will say this: “as much as you have done to the least of my brethren ye have done it to me.” It is in the bearing of the cross that we find nearness to Christ. It is in the furnace heated seven times that the children of God walk with God in liberty. The sweet desire of the true Christian is embodied in the words of the song: “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee! Even though it be a cross that raises me, still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.” Christ wants this church to know that there is a connection between Him and them on this matter of the gospel. Living out the gospel in our lives is a key to knowing Christ better. The cross is a cruel instrument of death. Our Savior embraced it and so do we. It involves suffering, death, and praise God it involves resurrection. It is seen in us dying to ourselves and living in the newness of life unto God. And it finishes just as it finished with Christ, with glory.
Going further into our text we learn that Christ does not just want for his church to know that He fellowships with them through suffering but also Christ desires for His church to know that He is aware of their suffering. “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” Our God sees what we are going through. First, He knows our physical suffering. He knows about our tribulation. He knows about our physical poverty. He knows the weariness of our physical bodies as we do His works that He has ordained for us to do. He is aware of it because He was tired, He was thirsty, He was hungry, and He had nowhere to lay His head in His incarnation. Our God is fully aware of our physical suffering. Secondly, He is aware of our spiritual state. No one else may see the integrity of our hearts but He does. The men of old would state this instead of swearing to their honesty, “God knoweth.” He knows the trueness of their works whereas they may be evil spoken of in the world. Today the Christian is accused of spreading hatred when He is spreading the loving message of Christ. God knows the truth of their motives even though the world does not understand them. Our spiritual state is before God and not before men. He knows about our true riches where as the world can only see our physical poverty. Henry stated this: “Where there is spiritual plenty, outward poverty may be better borne; and when God’s people are impoverished in temporal [things], for the sake of Christ and a good conscience, he makes all up to them in spiritual riches, which are much more satisfying and enduring.” God stated to this church that he had taken account of the treasures that they had laid up in heaven where there is no moth or no thief and He has declared them rich. This church is the polar opposite of the church we shall later speak of; Laodicea. They thought they were rich and Christ told them they were poor. Here we have a church that experienced nothing but poverty and Christ said they were rich. The accounting of Christ is not only better than the accounting of the world but also it is better than our own accounting. Whereas Laodicea was told to buy true riches, gold tried in the fire, this church was told that they already had an abundance of purified gold, precious and tried. Thirdly, He wants His church to know that He knows the malice and guile and craft of the enemy. If any man knows the guile and malice and craft of the enemy it would be Christ. No man ever suffered ridicule in the capacity of our Savior. They mocked the dying savior on the cross till He bled His last drop. This enemy though claims to have a relationship with God even though their works deny Him. Religion persecutes true Christianity even saying that they are doing God a service thereby (John 16:2). The church of Ephesus was plagued by those who said they were apostles and were not; this church was plagued by those who said they were God’s children and were not. Christ wants His church to know that He knows the truth about them as well. They say they are Jews (God’s covenant people, Catholics make the same claim as do many groups that cast malice at the gospel) but they really belong to Satan (Rom. 2:28, John 8:44, Eph. 2:2, 3). Historically Jamison gives this perspective: “Jews by national descent, but not spiritually of “the true circumcision.” The Jews blaspheme Christ as “the hanged one.” As elsewhere, so at Smyrna they bitterly opposed Christianity; and at POLYCARP’S martyrdom they joined the heathens in clamoring for his being cast to the lions; and when there was an obstacle to this, for his being burnt alive; and with their own hands they carried logs for the pile.” This text though does not cast this disparity on the Jew alone. As stated above many have persecuted the true followers of Christ in the name of the same God that Christians believed. Their works follow them. Those who choose this verse as a launching pad for Anti-Semitism miss the spiritual point. The true spiritual state of all men despite their outward religious garb is known of Christ. Henry wisely put it like this: “Those assemblies which are set up in opposition to the truths of the gospel, and which promote and propagate damnable errors,—those which are set up in opposition to the purity and spirituality of gospel worship, and which promote and propagate the vain inventions of men and rites and ceremonies which never entered into the thoughts of God,—these are all synagogues of Satan: he presides over them, he works in them, his interests are served by them, and he receives a horrid homage and honor from them.” Lastly, Christ would have His church to know that He knows and holds the future and that is connected to these above points but will be dealt with in the following heading.
So our last point in our text is this: Christ would have His suffering church to know that He is the one that holds the future. By this fact He strengthens the hands of their faith. “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” Why should we fear the temporal when we have the promise of the eternal? Ultimately our fears are relieved when we realize that Christ has secured eternity for us. He would have this church to know as He told the early disciples that if we will follow Him the world will hate us and persecute us; therefore we should not fear it for this is ordained for us by the one who is over all. Note the following four things: The wrath is the devils, the purpose is to be tried, the time is short, and there is a reward at the end. That sums up the message of Christ to this church. The devil shall cast you into prison. Wherever you see the follower of Christ persecuted we know that the devil is at work. We can love our persecutors and pray for them for we know that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Paul sang in victory in the prison house and could still love his jailer enough to give him the gospel. Jesus would have us to know who is really responsible for our imprisonment to guard us against bitterness toward men. He would also have us to know that the purpose of our suffering is “to be tried.” It is to make us purer and holier and more glorifying to God. It is the love of God that tries us. “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ…” (I Pet. 3:6, 7). Then He tells them that the time is short. He promises His own tribulation (John 16:33). But it is but “for a moment” and works for us far more eternal weight in glory. Now prophetically Smyrna of old experienced persecution under ten different Roman emperors from Nero to Diocletian. Or a specifically the persecution under Diocletian endured for ten years one year per each day in the prophecy as we have seen directly in other prophecies. But setting aside the direct fulfillment of prophecy we see here that whatever suffering we may go through it is only a short time. What is ten days by any measure compared to eternity? “The Captain of our salvation never keeps back what those who faithfully witness for Him may have to bear for His name’s sake; never entices recruits by the promise they shall find all things easy and pleasant there” said one man of God.
Thus far He prepared them to suffer but He will not close with promising them rewards or showering gifts on them. Be faithful till death! That is the battle cry of our Captain. Even if the enemy threatens your lives or all you have stay the course. There is a crown of life waiting for you on the other side of the martyr’s fire and that is more blessed then anything the world can throw at us. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (James 1:12). It is crown because it is related with real glory and with reigning with Christ. It is life because it is connected with the life of God. It is a reward that is worth receiving and not a corruptible crown like the world gives.