DIG: What problems is this church facing? How can they be both rich and poverty stricken at the same time? What is the crown of life promised to them? What is the meaning of the second death? Why is Jesus known as the First and the Last? What does this passage teach you about suffering?
REFLECT: Do you ever fear pain and hardship? Are you wondering if your struggles will ever end? Do you feel anxious about what tragedies or trials may be just around the corner, ready to shatter the comfort of your relatively stable and predictable life? Do you believe that Yeshua knows every detail of your circumstance? When asked if she believed in God, Cassie Bernall said, “Yes.” What would you like to say in her position? What do you think you really would say?
Regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, social status, age, or religion, all of us share the language of suffering. We may not be able to relate to another culture’s music, taste in food or humor, yet we all understand pain. In that sense we are all united by the experiences of hardship, heartache, affliction, sadness and grief.
For believers, the language of suffering has a unique and profound dialect, often misunderstood by foreigners to the faith. We believe that all suffering has a specific purpose in ADONAI’s sovereign plan. The Apostle Paul said it this way: We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him . . . to be conformed, literally molded under great pressure, to the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:28a-29a). Suffering speaks to the soul like nothing else. This isn’t intended to say that persecution is a thing of beauty or that the wicked are in fact good (Psalm 73). However, believers know that in spite of their pain, the Lord can reverse the intended outcome and bring about blessing.
Suffering and hardship often seem unbearable, but they have a way of purifying God’s people. Maybe that is why we’re never far from life’s trials. When the tsunami of hardship rushes at us, we must stand firm on the foundation of Messiah rather than being washed away with despair and hopelessness.
Throughout its history, it has been a paradoxical truth that the more believers have been persecuted, the greater has been their purity and strength. For decades, the atheistic communist governments in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe suppressed churches. Today believers continue to be persecuted in Muslim countries. They are forbidden to openly proclaim their faith. Many are imprisoned and some martyred. Yet, the Church has not only survived, it has flourished.
The Bible links the persecution of believers with their spiritual strength. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, wrote James, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4). In addition, the apostle Peter encouraged suffering believers with the truth that after you have suffered a little while, the Messiah Himself will restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast (First Peter 5:10). Our faith is forged through the furnace of adversity.
The church in Smyrna displayed the power and purity that comes from successfully enduring persecution. It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Well, persecution had purified and purged this church from sin and affirmed the faith of its members. It became an inspiration to believers everywhere. Hypocrites do not stay to face persecution, because false believers do not want to experience the pain. Trials and persecution strengthen and refine true faith, but expose and destroy false faith.
Scripture makes it perfectly clear that persecution and trials are an inevitable and essential part of a life of faith (Acts 14:22; Second Timothy 3:12). The example of that church instructs all others on how to properly respond to persecution when the time comes.53 Job said: Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him (Job 13:15), the church in Smyrna lived those words out.
1. The description of Christ: As you read the letters to the churches, notice the way Messiah describes Himself at the beginning of each letter. It will be a clue to the theme of the letter and what each church needed to understand in order to receive the ultimate victory over its struggles. To this church, He described Himself as the first and the last, who died and came to life again (2:8c). His very title emphasized His victory over death. Yeshua understood the hardships they faced because He Himself was dead and now is alive. He had passed through suffering and death and He was assuring the believers in Smyrna that He would take them through as well. Earlier, Jesus said to a distraught Martha after learning of the death of her brother Lazarus: Your brother will rise again. I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die (John 11:23-26). Jesus’ resurrection proves that there is life beyond the grave, and by His own death and resurrection, He proves that we can be there with Him.54 The Lord has conquered death (John 14:19), and later in the book these believers at Smyrna would learn that there would be no more death or mourning or crying or pain in the New Jerusalem, for the old order of things would pass away (21:4). He was the first and the last. This would have been tremendously encouraging to the church at Smyrna facing death.
If Messiah were only God, we might perceive Him as aloof, separated from our human experiences of suffering and unable to understand or relate to our desperate plight. If Christ were only a man, His death would have been nothing more than just another martyrdom of a good man. He would have been a weak victim of human tragedy, unable to conquer death and powerless to triumph over the grave. But because He is the first (existing before anything) and the last (who will live for eternity) fully God and fully man, we can know that He shares in our pain and not merely stares at our suffering. The writer to the Hebrews said it like this: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
2. The city: The name of the city came from one of its most important commercial products, means myrrh. The root of this word means bitterness. Myrrh is an ingredient in perfume (Psalm 45:8), it was used as one of the holy anointing oils of the priesthood (Exodus 30:23), it was used for the purification of women (Esther 2:12), and an embalming spice for the dead (John 19:39). It was brought as a gift to the baby Yeshua, by one of the Magi, indicating that He was born to die (Matthew 2:11). But there is a very interesting thing about myrrh, it has to be crushed to produce its fragrance. It was always a sign of bitterness and sorrow. The very name of the city smacks of death and crushing oppression (2:8b).
It was a large and wealthy city that was the archrival of Ephesus. In fact, it was constantly competing with Ephesus for title, “First city of Asia.” In John’s day it was a thriving city with a famous stadium, library and a diverse population of perhaps half-million people. It enjoyed great natural advantages, including an excellent harbor at the end of a well protected gulf. It was thus the natural outlet for the trade of the rich valley of the Hermus regions and beyond.55 The Romans called it the beauty of Asia, and when you drive into Smyrna, even today, you can see why. There is a sloping hill that goes up to a plateau right behind this beautiful seaport city. This city had a long-standing loyalty to Rome even before it became a mighty empire. It was one of the first cities to engage in worship of the Roman emperor and it won the honor of building a temple to the Emperor Tiberius. In John’s time, they continued to honor Cesar as lord of all. As a result, Smyrna was deeply involved in emperor worship.
There was also a very large population of secular Jews in Smyra that opposed the church there. They had considerable influence over the civil authorities in Smyrna, so much so, that they acted more like Romans than Jews of faith. They did, in fact, work actively and purposefully against the cause of Christ. Though the secular Jews in the Roman Empire were legally excused from sacrificing to the emperor, those who belived in Messiah enjoyed no such exemption after the synagogues threw them out. Thus, believers in Smyrna faced persecution from both secular Jews and Gentiles. On the one hand the Gentiles devoted themselves to emperor worship. On the other hand, the secular Jews were devoted to attempting to fulfill the Torah in their own strength. This mixture of Roman patriots and Jewish zealots put those believers between a rock and a hard place.
3. The church: To the angel of the church in Smyrna write (2:8a). In the midst of their suffering, Messiah came to this church with a message of hope. The Master’s timely message reminded them that God gives strength to those who suffer and rewards those who endure. The benefits of perseverance hold true in this life, but also in the life to come. When and by whom it was founded, we do not know. We assume that it was the fruit of Paul’s missionary work in Asia that was centered in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). At the time of John’s writing, the believers there had endured the fires of pain and the suffering of persecution, and their sorrows would soon increase. Their future looked bleak. However, the church was healthy for the letter contains no word of criticism.56 They weren’t suffering hardship because they did anything wrong. On the contrary, in spite of their poverty due to persecution, they were spiritually rich. The city of Smyrna was dedicated to Cesar, but the believers in Smyrna were dedicated to Christ.
4. The commendation: Imagine yourself sitting among the gathering of the Lord’s people in Smyrna on a cold morning before sunrise. A little lamp-lit room houses what was left of a small group of beaten and harassed believers. The once-lively crowd now displays obvious gaps where people once sat. Some have fallen away under persecution. Others have seemingly vanished into thin air – arrested, exiled, or executed. Some risked their lives just to meet that morning to pray, sing hymns, and to read the Scriptures. All of you are outcasts, desperate for a word of encouragement from the messenger sitting in your midst. In the dim light the scroll is unrolled and, in quiet confidence, the word from Yeshua is read to them: I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich (2:9a). He knew first hand the kind of suffering and pain they endured as rejected outcasts. The word afflictions always means pressure from outside. This is like going to your job or community and facing people who care little about your God or, for that matter, little about you personally. The apostle Paul said it this way: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed (Second Corinthians 4:8 NASB). Remember what Smyrna means? Crushed so that the aroma will come out. Those believers in Smyrna were being crushed by the culture there. They were being killed and persecuted, actually shunned by the people of Smyrna. They were fired from their jobs or couldn’t get jobs; people would not buy their products that they sold. They had their properties confiscated. So they were poor financially because of their stand for Yeshua, yet, Messiah tells them in this letter, they were rich in the things that would last for eternity. Jesus Christ became poor that we could be spiritually rich. James reminds us that God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom He promises to those who love Him (James 2:5).
Secondly, Christ said: I know the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not (2:9b). Here, a literal understanding of this verse points to the fact that these were Gentiles who pretended to be Jews. Nowhere in the New Covenant are unbelieving Jews called non-Jews, although Romans 2:28-29 is sometimes mistakenly used as evidence to the contrary. This same expression . . . those who claim to be apostles but are not is found in 2:2. Those in 2:2 were not apostles and here they were not Jews. In the first century the Jewish religion was highly regarded and many Gentiles preferred a short-cut, reaping the advantage of Jewish identification without the burden of adherence to the Torah. Paul had already encountered such as those in Galatia (Galatians 6:12-13). A true Jew would recognize God, yet these Gentiles, who pretended to be Jews, were so enmeshed in the political life of Smyrna that they honored Cesar as lord of all. Although they seemed to be a part of the local synagogue, they cared little for what ADONAI wrote or thought.
Sixty years after this letter was written, those Gentiles joined with other citizens of Smyrna to form a mob and burn Polycarp, who was the pastor of the church there, alive. He was eighty-six years old. As a young man he was discipled by John, and little did he know that fifty years later God would call upon him to fulfill the message to that band of believers: Be faithful, even to the point of death. This is what those Gentiles who led the mob, cried out with uncontrollable wrath as the flames engulfed Polycarp, “This is the teacher of Asia. The father of the church. The destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to offer sacrifice, nor to worship them.”
Without exception this phenomenon of Gentiles imagining that they were Jews when they are not has led to strange doctrines and practices. Such Gentiles were not accepted by Jews as Jewish; nor as this verse shows, were they accepted by Christians as Christian. Isolated and self defensive, they can easily become prideful, neither obeying the Torah nor showing brotherly love to Yeshua’s true followers. It is easy to see why Jesus does not regard them as harmlessly neutral but correctly assessed the situation and called them a synagogue of Satan (2:9c).57
5. The concern: Although they suffered physical hardship and poverty, the believers at Smyrna clung to their vast spiritual wealth. Fittingly, this church, along with those in Philadelphia, received no rebuke in its letter from the Lord.
6. The command: Brace yourself for more suffering to come. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer, even if it took harsher forms of imprisonment and capital punishment, as it often did. He would be there with them through their trials, saying: Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me (Hebrews 13:5b-6). The word suffer here is in the present tense, so their time of suffering would be intense but short. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you (2:10a). In the ancient world prisons were a place where the accused awaited execution.58 It would be a divine test to distinguish true believers from false believers.59 And you will suffer persecution for ten days (2:10b). The ten days are symbolic of ten Roman emperors who persecuted the Church from AD 96 to 305: Domitian (96), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antonius Pius (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimus Severus (193-211), Maximun (235-238), Decius (249-251), Valarian (251-260), and Diocletian (284-305). Diocletian is considered the worst emperor in Rome’s history and the greatest enemy of those of faith. He led a violent attempt to destroy the Bible from the face of the earth. Under his leadership many Roman cities had public burnings of the Scriptures.60
Jesus said: Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). The word to give rest means to refresh or revive, as from labor or a long journey. The Messiah promises spiritual rest to everyone who comes to Him in repentance and humble faith. He will never leave us or forsake us, He will be with us forever. We have nothing to fear. Jesus Christ does not get rid of the trouble; He is with us through the trouble.
7. The counsel: Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life (2:10c). The crown of life is not a promise of a special reward for martyrs. God has promised this crown to all those who remain faithful to Him when under persecution. Blessed is the man who perseveres under trail, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him (James 1:12). The figure of the crown is not borrowed from royalty, but from the festivity of athletic games that were held in the large arena in Smyrna. Contestants there strove to receive an earthly crown that would not last, but Paul reminds the believers in Smyrna, that even though they suffered physical death, they would receive a crown that will last forever, the eternal crown of life (First Corinthians 9:25).61
Does your faith in the resurrection have an impact on your everyday life? You may not be called upon to die or go to prison for your faith. Still, every day we face different kinds of “death.” There is a kind of death involved when we face the choice of holding on to or letting go of a comfort in our life that tends to weaken our faith or lead us into temptation. There is also the death that comes when physical illness takes away not only our health but our confidence or independence as well.
Whenever we face the stripping away of such things, is our response fear or anger? Yeshua understands. Remember, He has walked that path before us and calls us to let Him walk with us now. He longs to lead us through difficulties, great or small. As we cling to Him and allow Him to bring life out of these little deaths, we will find our confidence in Him erasing our fears. Our faith in the resurrection, put into practice in this way, will prepare us for eternal life with Him. Like the victorious believers in Smyrna, we will not be hurt at all by the second death.62
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the seven churches. There was a clear chain of command regarding those messages. The glorified Messiah gave the message, the angel to each group of believers guarded and assured the arrival of the message, John wrote the message, then the Spirit spoke the message to listening ears and open hearts.63 He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death (2:11). This is the first mention of the phrase second death in the Bible, but the concept of future judgment for unbelievers is clear in the TaNaKh. It is associated with the destination of the unsaved after their bodily resurrection (Dan'iel 12:2). Those who overcome – true believers in Yeshua – will not be hurt by the second death (Dani'el 12:3; Revelation 20:6). Unbelievers, however, will suffer a second death after they are thrown into the lake of fire in their resurrected bodies (see Fp – The Lake of Fire is the Second Death).
The promise of eternal life (see my commentary on The Life of Christ Ms - The Eternal Security of the Believer) with no possibility of experiencing eternal death and damnation was meant to instill concrete hope in the Smyrnean believers. No matter how severe the persecution would grow and no matter what the church at Smyrna had to endure, Messiah’s promises would give them strength to persevere. The same promises remain true for us toady.
On April 20th, 1999, Cassie Bernall was sitting in the library of Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, when two white neo-Nazi racists burst in and began shooting everyone in sight. Cassie stood up and began to pray. One of the killers pointed a shotgun in Cassie's face and asked her, "Do you believe in God?" Cassie stood face to face with her killer and said "Yes". One of the killers then said to her," Why?" and then immediately shot her in the face, without giving her a chance to answer.
Cassie died a true martyr for her faith. She could have begged for her life, in hopes that her killers would take pity on her and maybe spare her. But she refused to do that. Cassie did not give her killer the satisfaction of seeing her beg and plead for her life. She knew where she would be going and was faithful, even to the point of death. Cassie proved that she loved Yeshua so much, that she was willing to die for her faith in Him. Today, many say they love Jesus, but if asked to prove their faith like Cassie or the believers in Smyrna did, many would back down, cry, and beg for their lives. Cassie entered the Columbine High School library to study during lunch. She left a martyr.
Lord, in your humanity, you have experienced suffering and death. Let me not feel abandoned when I face the same. Instead, help me to take hold of Your hand and walk with You into the next life.64 In the name of the First and the Last, who died and came to life again, amen. You are faithful.
The persecuted believers at Smyrna are a picture of the Church during the Age of Roman persecution from AD 96 to 305. During the second and third centuries this persecution age saw thousands of believers brought into the amphitheaters of Rome to be fed to hungry lions while multitudes of spectators cheered. Many were crucified. Others were covered with animal skins and tortured to death by wild dogs. It was not unheard of for them to be covered with tar and set on fire to serve as human torches. They were also boiled in oil and burned at the stake, as was Polycarp in the city of Smyrna itself in AD 156. One historian has estimated that during this period, five million believers were martyred for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
This period was probably the greatest time of persecution the Church has ever known. Satan unleashed a violent attack on it during that time in an effort to obliterate it. For it became evident to him that the faithful preaching of the Gospel during the Apostolic Age had become a serious threat to his worldwide godless empire. But he was unsuccessful and God was victorious. The Gospel was preached around the world.
The ancient serpent, however, learned a valuable lesson. The more he persecuted the Church, the more it overcame the one condemning characteristic of the Apostolic Age, that of having left its first love. Not one word of condemnation was spoken to this body of believers. Consequently, this age ended with the easing of persecution. Then the devil used what turned out to be one of his most effective weapons, making the world enticing enough that the Body of Messiah would fall in love with it.65 We will see this tactic next in our travels as we turn next and visit the church up the road in Pergamum.
The Teaching Ministry of Jay Mack 2006-2017